Northwestern-Minnesota Preview

The Associated Press

A late run allowed Minnesota to open Big Ten play on a positive note and help coach Tubby Smith learn even more about his surging squad.

Based on their recent home history against Northwestern, the Golden Gophers could be in for an easier time Sunday night.

Riding their longest winning streak in four seasons, the ninth-ranked Gophers look for a 10th consecutive victory overall and sixth straight at home over the Wildcats.

Minnesota (13-1, 1-0) looked to be in trouble Monday at Williams Arena when No. 18 Michigan State used a 15-3 run to take a five-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining. Instead of cracking like the Gophers have done at times in the past, they used an 18-2 run over the final seven minutes to win 76-63.

"We're finally, I think, growing up," said Smith, whose team is among five in the Big Ten ranked among the nation's top 11.

"It's about the character, the heart and the toughness because in this league, against any team, it's all about who is going to establish their will from a mental capacity. It's not all physical."

In the midst of the school's longest winning streak since opening 12-0 in 2008-09, Minnesota has won its last nine by an average of 15.3 points since losing 89-71 to top-ranked Duke on Nov. 22.

Minnesota's last recognized regular-season league championship came in 1982. The Gophers showed why they're a title contender this season by not crumbling Monday, shooting 56.6 percent while outrebounding the rugged Spartans 39-32 to snap a four-game series skid.

"We're a totally different team this year," said forward Rodney Williams, who had 15 points.

Andre Hollins had 22 points with six assists while Trevor Mbakwe added 11 points and 12 rebounds for the Gophers, who insist their latest victory was not a statement game.

"I don't think we proved too much," Williams said. "We still have a long Big Ten season with a bigger target on our back, so we'll celebrate this win and then come back and get ready for Northwestern so we can get our second win in the conference."

Looking for an 11th consecutive home victory, Minnesota has averaged 75.0 points and shot 52.2 percent while holding Northwestern to 58.2 points per contest during a five-game home winning streak in the series. That's a vast difference than the Gophers' play in Evanston, where they've lost four straight as the Wildcats (9-5, 0-1) have averaged 70.8 points.

Hollins, who has averaged 22.7 points in his last three games against Big Ten foes, scored 25 in a 75-68 overtime win over Northwestern in the first round of last season's Big Ten tournament.

The Wildcats look to avoid starting 0-2 in league play for the sixth time in seven seasons after Thursday's 94-66 home loss to second-ranked Michigan. Northwestern, which fell behind 20-4, shot 40.7 percent while allowing the Wolverines to make 59.6 percent.

Though the Big Ten remains a collectively strong defensive league, Northwestern ranks near the bottom of the conference in points allowed (61.8) and opponents' field-goal shooting (41.3 percent).

"Eventually, we've got to start doing things that the coaches get on us about," guard Dave Sobolewski said. "A lot of it will come down to heart and how bad we want it on defense."

With guards JerShon Cobb (suspension) and Drew Crawford (shoulder) already out for the season, it's uncertain if leading scorer Reggie Hearn (14.5 ppg) will miss a third straight game due to a sprained ankle.

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