Sam Ekstrom is in Des Moines, Iowa as the Minnesota Golden Gophers try to advance to the Sweet 16 with a win over the Michigan State Spartans. Follow along for commentary throughout the game.
We’re about an hour from tipoff here in Des Moines, where Michigan is looking to stave off a second-half rush from 10th-seeded Florida. Plenty of Maroon and Gold scattered throughout Wells Fargo Arena, but this place could clear out a bit between games since Florida and Michigan fans have no reason to stay unless they want to watch some more basketball.
For pregame reading, check out my feature stories from the last two days.
Michigan wins handily, and it’s time for the Gophers to take the floor. One thing to watch tonight: Cassius Winston. He’s Michigan State’s best player and kept them from afloat during their poor first half against Bradley on Thursday, but he was seen walking with a distinct limp in the tunnel after the game. We’ll see how he looks after two days of rest. Gut says he’ll look like his normal self once we tip off.
Curious if Richard Pitino will limit Jordan Murphy’s minutes as he copes with a back injury. The coach said Friday that Murphy’s condition improved overnight, but back spasms can be tricky. He’s been playing 37 or more minutes per game when healthy and out of foul trouble. Omersa and Hurt may get extended looks in the first half to keep Murphy fresh for the second half. Gophers have so little margin for error already, and their front court continue to get decimated.
Spartans are challenging Murphy when possible and getting some good touches in the paint. They grab an early 11-2 lead as Minnesota has gotten sloppy on offense, leading to a pair of transition baskets. Totally different feeling early in this game. Minnesota looks tired.
Not quite a home atmosphere when you get fooled by the opposing bands’ fake shot clock trick. Gophers have rushed a pair of shots trying to beat a buzzer that was five seconds away. Just two field goals through six minutes for Minnesota. Remember, they started slowly against Louisville too, but Sparty won’t be as forgiving.
The injury bug could be the Gophers’ eventual undoing. Jordan Murphy looks very stiff on the sideline, which could mean huge minutes for Jarvis Omersa if it persists. The best Omersa can offer is energy and defense. He’s not going to score 15-20 points like Murphy, so that takes another scorer out of the mix. Gophers are already too dependent on a handful of guys, so this is bad, bad news. 17-9 Michigan State with 11:09 left in the first half.
Gophers have no clue how to respond right now. They’re just forcing 3s trying to score 10 points on one play. Michael Hurt, Jarvis Omersa and Brock Stull are on the floor, and predictably it’s getting out of control.
Gophers came into this hoping to make it like the Purdue game last Friday when they upset the Boilermakers by two. Instead, it’s turned into the Michigan game from last Saturday when they trailed by 30+ in the second half. Pretty alarming lack of defense and offensive rhythm. 31-14 Spartans.
It’s not like Minnesota hasn’t had opportunities. Spartans have turned it over seven times to give some golden chances in transition that haven’t panned out. I mean, Omersa just tried a 3-pointer off a fast break. Omersa! There’s no 3-point magic left, it seems, after Thursday’s sharp-shooting performance. Gophers have chucked 15 3-pointers and are 13 percent from beyond the arc. Isaiah Washington hit one of their two 3s in a rare appearance as Pitino tries everything possible to spark the team.
Halftime. Spartans up 33-19, and if the Gophers have taken better advantage of the last five minutes they could be much closer. Way too many missed 3s, obviously, but they squandered numerous transition chances they usually convert upon. Jarvis Omersa, to his credit, was a fiend on defense as Michigan State committed a shocking number of turnovers — 11. But this needed to be an 8-10 point game, in my opinion, for Minnesota to have a shot at a comeback. Jordan Murphy hasn’t played since the opening minutes, which is a devastating way for him to end his storied career.
I think the Gophers really, really, really needed Bradley to upset Michigan State. Spartans weren’t going to come out flat again, especially after the whole Izzo freak-out. They have such a talent advantage at numerous positions. This team was tough to beat at full strength, let alone woefully short-handed.
Tweeted this out a bit ago, but I’ll put it here, too. Gophers fans do not want to hear after the game that their poor offense affected their defensive effort. In numerous losses this year that has been the postgame reasoning, and it has to be aggravating. This hasn’t been as much of an issue in the last seven games, but it popped up after several blowout losses throughout the year. Effort is such a controllable thing, and Minnesota can’t be lacking in that department in the biggest game of their season. I think the effort improved at the end of the second half, so maybe it will carry over.
Gophers fans desperately want a chance to get back into this game, but Sparty continues to thwart any game-changing plays. The rebounding margin in now TWENTY at 31-11. Of course, a lot of that is because of the excessive missed shots by Minnesota, but the offensive rebounds sit at 7-3 Michigan State, too. Xavier Tillman has been great with 10 points and five boards.
If you don’t have chills in here, you don’t have a pulse. This is amazing from Minnesota. We’ll see how long they can ride the wave. Within nine and plenty of time to go.
And there’s the answer. Daniel Oturu turns it over twice in a row, and Cassius Winston — bad foot and all — rains in three tough jumpers in a row. Amazing leadership. Michigan State regains a 47-31 lead to stifle all the Gophers’ momentum. Fun spurt, but all the progress is gone now.
Aaron Henry hits a 3 to make the lead 52-33. Gophers are doing in this half, though, what they fell away from in the first half: Getting to the basket. Bet Pitino wishes they could have a four-minute chunk of time back between 10:00 and 6:00 left in the first when they got really undisciplined. Those early gut punches are hard to withstand when you’re already disadvantaged with available bodies. Minnesota would probably like to press more, but they don’t have the depth.
This one belongs to Michigan State. 61-40 with 6:25 to go, and Minnesota’s season is about to come to an end. Going into the tournament, I think most would have considered one win and a loss to Michigan State an acceptable outcome. But when you get in this Round of 32 situation and let yourself dream about the upset, the result stings when it doesn’t come to fruition. For the third straight season, you could link injuries to Minnesota’s eventual downfall. Two years ago they lost Akeem Springs before the tournament and Nate Mason hurt his hip. Last year McBrayer and Coffey’s injuries hijacked the season (plus Reggie Lynch’s suspension). And now Curry/Matz/Murphy. No guarantee the healthy group beats Michigan State, but the what if game is tantalizing.
Looking ahead to next year, I think you’re already seeing that the Gophers lack physicality and rebounding without Murphy on the floor. He’s one of the most unique players they’ve ever had. Irreplaceable. Omersa and Oturu can strengthen up, but neither can bring quite the same dimension. Guards should be strong with Coffey (if he doesn’t go pro) and Kalscheur. If Washington doesn’t transfer maybe he gets a longer look. Payton Willis and Marcus Carr will be eligible to add depth.
Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy get their final sendoffs as Pitino pulls them with just over a minute to go — Murphy departing after being inserted for just a few seconds. Two great ambassadors for the program over the last four years. They’ll be missed. Looked like they were pretty emotional.
That’s a wrap from Des Moines. Spartans win 70-50. Thanks for following along today and throughout the season. More to come from the postgame access.