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Defense stands tall, Gophers turn away Northwestern in OT

Even after Cam Christie drilled a three-pointer with 44 seconds left to give the Gophers men's basketball team its first lead of the second half Saturday, it would take more to beat an NCAA tournament-caliber team like Northwestern.

Pharrel Payne needed to be an intimidating inside force. Dawson Garcia needed to carry his team offensively for a stretch. Defense and free throws were needed to seal the game.

A late turnover led to Boo Buie's free throws forcing overtime Saturday afternoon, but the Gophers dominated the Wildcats in the extra period for a 75-66 victory in front of an announced crowd of 9.492 at Williams Arena.

The Gophers (14-7, 5-5 Big Ten) flipped their mindset quickly from frustration to fearlessness after squandering a 61-58 lead with 20 seconds to play. It was reminiscent of a 61-59 loss vs. Wisconsin last month but with a different outcome.

"We were super fired up," said Garcia, who had eight of his team-high 20 points in overtime. "The wind got taken out a little bit of our sails because we thought it was going to be a win in regulation. But the timeout before overtime started, everyone was flipped and we got the momentum back on our side."

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Gophers coach Ben Johnson has more than doubled his two Big Ten wins last season halfway through conference play. Defeating Northwestern gives one of the Big Ten's surprise teams momentum going into an even bigger home game Tuesday in a rematch vs. Michigan State.

"You want to be in position to have something to play for," Johnson said. "That's the challenge because the last two years we haven't. Now you have to flip your mindframe to not being satisfied."

After Garcia lost the ball out of bounds with 4.8 seconds to play in regulation, Buie was fouled and nailed two free throws that would extend the game tied 61-61. The Gophers then outscored the Wildcats 14-5 in overtime, including 7-for-8 free throws.

Garcia's first three of the game broke a 63-63 tie in the extra period. Payne's dunk followed by a block was the exclamation point with under 40 seconds left.

The Wildcats (15-7, 6-5) were held to 2-for-9 shooting from the field in overtime, including no threes after nailing 11-for-20 from beyond the arc in regulation.

"We have a bunch of fighters who are willing to do what it takes to come up with the win," said Payne, who had 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. "Defense was the name of the game."

Christie finished with 10 of his 15 points in the second half. Elijah Hawkins added 13 points and 10 assists for the Gophers, who also forced 17 turnovers.

BOXSCORE: Gophers 75, Northwestern 66

The Gophers won four times after trailing at halftime in the first nine Big Ten games this season, but they didn't want to keep that trend going.

After trailing Northwestern 27-17 in the first half Saturday, Hawkins and Christie capped a 10-0 run to tie it at halftime after back-to-back threes, including Hawkins nailing one from the logo to beat the buzzer.

Hawkins received an injury scare early in the second half when he stepped on a Northwestern player's foot. He had missed the Jan. 18 loss at Michigan State with a sprained ankle, but the Gophers' point guard returned to the game Saturday after briefly leaving for the locker room.

"I know he got banged up pretty good," Johnson said. "But he's a warrior. He was not going to be on the sidelines for this one."

The same could be said for Payne, who made his presence felt with Garcia on Saturday after a back injury kept him out when the Gophers snapped a four-game losing streak last weekend at Penn State.

Who knows how far the Gophers can take their momentum now with a healthy lineup again.

"It's big time to stack wins," Garcia said. "It was big time to have [Payne] back because he does so many things for our team."