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clock Mar 16, 2007 9:57 pm US/Central

WCHA Final Five: Gophers Win, Wheeler Hat Trick

(AP) St. Paul Blake Wheeler scored a hat trick and Kellen Briggs stopped 29 shots to lead Minnesota past the Wisconsin Badgers 4-2 in the WCHA Final Five semifinals Friday night.

"We've been a little up and down the second half of the season," Gophers defender Mike Vannelli said. "To dig deep and bounce back was huge for us tonight. We needed this type of win."

Minnesota (29-9-3), the top seed in the Final Five and second-ranked team in the nation, faces No. 3 seed North Dakota in Saturday's championship game.

Wheeler scored the game-winner with four seconds remaining in the second period. After Wisconsin's Jake Dowell took a hooking penalty, Wheeler tipped a slap shot from Alex Goligoski past Badgers goalie Brian Elliott.

"Alex made a great play putting it on my stick," Wheeler said. "I just tipped it in."

The goal was a momentum killer for Wisconsin.

"We still had 20 minutes to bounce back and get the job done," Badgers center Andrew Joudrey said. "You need to have that steely resolve to get going."

Briggs, who struggled as the season progressed, was steady for most of the night, including a sprawling save with just under five minutes to play.

Wheeler scored the game's first goal five minutes into the opening period.

Davis Drewiske tied it later in the first thanks to some help from Gophers defenseman Erik Johnson. With under a minute remaining in the period, Drewiske's shot from outside the right circle ricocheted off of Johnson's skate and into his own net. It was only Johnson's second goal since the season's opening weekend.

"If you're a defenseman and you haven't put one in, you haven't been playing hockey," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "You just have to move on."

The Badgers (18-18-4) had a bounce go against them in the second period when Vannelli launched a slap shot that bounced off the thigh of Wisconsin center Aaron Bendickson and into his own net.

Wheeler added an empty-net goal with four seconds remaining to complete the hat trick, his first with the Gophers.

Minnesota has maintained its No. 1 position in the Pairwise rankings despite struggling throughout the season's final two months. After a season-opening loss to Maine, Minnesota went on a 22-game unbeaten streak. Since the streak was snapped, Minnesota is just 9-8-0.

Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves hasn't seen the lack of toughness that many others have observed with the Gophers this season.

"They've been pretty gritty against us all year," he said.

The Badgers entered the Final Five 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, and likely will not have a chance to defend its national title.

"It's tough and there were some tears from the seniors in the locker room," Eaves said. "But we've still got one more game tomorrow and you never know what could happen."

(� 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. )

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