Greetings from Williams Arena, where it’s expected to be a near-packed house for Minnesota’s highly-anticipated conference opener against Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans.
These aren’t the typically-dominant Spartans one might expect. Izzo’s group is 8-5, coming off a loss two games ago to Northeastern out of the Colonial Athletic Association. They’ve also been underwhelming in home victories against Florida Gulf-Coast, Oral Roberts, Tennessee Tech and, most recently, Oakland — a game where the Spartans had more turnovers than field goals in the first half.
Michigan State had been battle-tested early — but unsuccessful — against the likes of Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke, dropping four of their first eight games, and aside from a 77-72 win over Wichita State, the Spartans have yet to look like the perennial Beast From East Lansing they’ve grown to be under Izzo.
Injuries haven’t helped. Freshman star Miles Bridges, the team’s leading scorer has missed five straight games with an ankle injury and did not participate in warmups before Tuesday’s game. Two of the team’s most experienced forwards — Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter — are both out with knee injuries. Junior star Tum Tum Nairn, Jr. has reportedly been battling a sore foot, though he’s likely going to play.
The Gophers will have a size advantage against the Spartans, only having to deal with 6-foot-8 freshman Nick Ward, who scored 25 points against Oakland in Michigan State’s last victory. In fact, Izzo went with three freshman in that Dec. 21 game, oddly making the Gophers seem like the experienced group, at least according to the Detroit Free Press.
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) December 27, 2016
Minnesota (12-1) seems to be catching Michigan State, a team that usually rounds into form during February, at the optimal moment. Even a win against a banged-up Spartans club would do wonders for the Gophers’ confidence. The Maroon and Gold have started 0-5 and 0-13 in conference play each of the last two seasons.
With the caveat of not having played a conference game, the Gophers’ resume looks outstanding. Their RPI is eighth-best in the nation — tops in the Big 10 — while Michigan State sits at 81st.
With The Barn rocking Tuesday night, Minnesota has an opportunity to solidify itself as a conference contender.
The Gophers are sticking with the starting lineup they’ve used most of the non-conference season with Dupree McBrayer, Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch.
Michigan State again goes young with freshmen Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, sophomore Matt McQuaid and senior Matt Van Dyk.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (15:37, first half)
Great energy for Gophers early to take a 10-6 advantage — could be more, frankly. Amir Coffey turned it over twice on fast break opportunities, throwing it away once and traveling on another. Dupree McBrayer doesn’t look intimidated, though, with two hard drives to the rim for the team’s first two baskets.
The defense in the paint was great through the first four minutes as we expected. Reggie Lynch had two blocks and Jordan Murphy had another. The thing the Gophers are terrific at, especially Lynch, is keeping blocks in play and turning them into transition chances. Minnesota looks comfortable, which I was worried about in pregame. This game has been hyped up for two months, yet they seem poised out there.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (11:28, first half)
So impressed by Minnesota’s defense, which is spearheading an early 15-9 advantage. No easy shots for Michigan State. Several near shot-clock violations. Gophers’ closeouts continue to be vastly improved, which comes from better positioning and communication this season. They’re also really active with help-side double teams tonight and have picked several Spartans’ pockets.
Foul trouble for Reggie Lynch, which is a troubling theme. Officials seem to have active whistles tonight. Looks like both teams will be in the bonus by the next media timeout.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (7:59, first half)
First of all, the atmosphere is fantastic tonight. Not quite a sell-out, as the upper corners are a little bare, but close. Crowd living and dying with every whistle — and there have been a lot of them. Already 17 fouls called, but Minnesota isn’t taking advantage at the foul line, shooting just 5 of 10.
There might some nerves, too. We’ve got 17 turnovers between the two teams; nine for Michigan State, eight for Minnesota.
Senior Alvin Ellis III has come off the bench for the Spartans to hit a pair of 3-pointers and keep Michigan State in it. It’s a 20-15 game with under eight minutes left before half.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (2:57, first half)
Gophers defense continues to stymie Sparty as Minnesota leads 32-21, and they’re doing so having only had Reggie Lynch for five minutes. Eric Curry has picked up where Lynch left off, protecting the basket and continuing the block party.
Coffey has come alive a bit, now with seven points. In general, the Gophers have taken good shots, shooting 10 of 19. They’ve recognized the way the game is being officiated and are lowering their shoulders to get to the rim. Only four 3-point attempts so far, which is fine when considering the climate of tonight’s game. Great approach to just grind it out until it stops working.
Minnesota 39, Michigan State 26. All together, a wildly impressive effort by the Gophers. Sure, Michigan State is undermanned, but they actually looked overwhelmed in the first half. They’re getting nothing from their guards except for a pair of Alvin Ellis III 3’s off the bench, and while Nick Ward was OK with nine points and five boards, he was far outshined by Minnesota’s trio of Murphy, Lynch and Curry.
Curry, the freshman, played 14 minutes to Lynch’s five and looked the part. With Murphy playing as assertively as he has all season, Lynch’s absence due to foul trouble stung a little less.
With the posts locking everything down on the defensive end, the Minnesota guards showed up big time. Amir Coffey got off to a rocky start but finished strong, nailing a 3 that gave Minnesota its biggest lead at 39-24. He scored 10 in the first half to snap a five-out-of-six game stretch where he was stuck in single digits. McBrayer was aggressive and effective with 10 points of his own, and he must’ve drawn at least four fouls. Mason, as usual, was the most collected player on the floor with zero turnovers and nine points.
It felt like Minnesota should have led by more than 13, if you can believe it. Simply because of the aura of Izzo and the Spartans, this game doesn’t feel like it’s over. But Minnesota could put it away quickly if they start the second half hot.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (15:17, second half)
Scary start to the second half for the Gophers. Michigan State goes on a 7-0 run to pull within six. The score currently sits at 42-36 as Izzo and Pitino plot their next moves in the huddles. As I typed earlier, the Gophers are smart to keep going to the rack and trying to draw fouls — until it stops working. We could be looking at second half with more whistle-swallowing, which could force Minnesota to find their drive-and-dish game. Good time for Akeem Springs to make an appearance.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (11:55, second half)
Minnesota has stabilized, now back up 12, 52-40. Jordan Murphy continues to be manic cleaning up the glass and could be destined for a 20-board game. The way he’s been pounding down low on both ends — and the way refs have been calling fouls — it’s remarkable that he hasn’t picked up a foul.
Reggie Lynch just picked up his fourth foul before the break, so this will be mostly Eric Curry’s game in the second half.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (7:59, second half)
Scratch that! Eric Curry picked up his fourth foul as well. So did Bakary Konate. All the bigs are a foul away from being disqualified, and the Spartans are within five points at 55-50. They’re passing far better after a stagnant first half and seem to be pushing the pace more off defensive rebounds.
The Gophers are back to some poor free throw shooting and aren’t having much success on jumpers. It could become a free-throw shooting contest down the stretch, where Michigan State has been pitiful — just 44 percent.
MEDIA TIMEOUT (2:48, second half)
Freshman big man Nick Ward, who scored 25 points last game, has 22 tonight and is absolutely dominating the post right now. Just spun out of a double team for a hook shot, then finished a reverse layup to give Michigan State a 3-point lead. Buckle up. Gophers have been playing not to lose; now they need to make some winning plays to come back.
TIMEOUT (1:36, second half)
Richard Pitino wants Nate Mason to be considered one of the conference’s best guards. He’s absolutely earning that distinction down the stretch.
OVERTIME (2:22, OT)
Sorry for the lack of updates. We’ve got a “Barn” burner (pun intended) here. Tum Tum Nairn, Jr. just hit a 3 to put the Spartans up 3. Gophers with their backs against the wall.
OVERTIME (23.8, OT)
All I can see is, Bakary Konate has been the late-game and overtime MVP. WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT??? Big defense on Nick Ward and an offensive rebound putback. Izzo drawing up a game-winning play (he hopes) as I type.
FINAL: Spartans 75, Gophers 74
Minnesota fouls Michigan State on the defensive end, Alvin Ellis III makes a pair of free throws and Nate Mason misses a difficult shot before the buzzer to end the dream for the Gophers. It’s a crushing loss for a team desperately seeking credibility, and Michigan State was ripe for the picking. The Spartans just willed themselves to victory in this one — no doubt with the help of some great coaching. They overcome a 15-point deficit to win by a point and maybe revive their season hopes. Minnesota, on the other hand, will have to respond on the road against Purdue — a real Big 10 powerhouse. Fun times.