"It just takes the wind out of your sail, because I thought our guys were ready to play," said Gophers coach Tubby Smith, whose team never trailed by more than six points and led for nearly 18 minutes of the second half until turning the ball over at the absolute worst times.
Draymond Green had 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals for the Spartans (23-5, 12-3), who won their sixth straight game in February. Green's only basket of the second half was a pump-fake layup that rolled on the rim and in to tie it at 58 with 1:40 left. He was 4 for 6 from 3-point range before halftime and 1 for 8 from the field in the second half.
Austin Hollins scored 17 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range for the Gophers (17-11, 5-10), who committed 12 of their 15 turnovers after halftime. Julian Welch had four of them to offset 10 points and eight assists. The Gophers beat Michigan State 33-27 on the boards and made 14 of their 15 free throws, but they still couldn't pull out a must-win game for their dying NCAA tournament hopes.
"I'm proud that we found a way to win a game that we didn't deserve to," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said.
Izzo, Green and Wood all called the Gophers a "great" team worthy of the NCAA tournament, but these were the words of emotional, impressionable athletes and coaches after a spirited game, not the mathematical analysis of a room full of suit-wearing selection committee members. Minnesota almost certainly has to beat No. 23 Indiana on Sunday and win at No. 16 Wisconsin next week to stay in the conversation.
The NCAA tournament seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of these Gophers after this latest meltdown.
"I don't have the answer right now," center Ralph Sampson III said, when asked what caused all the turnovers down the stretch.
As for the formula for saving their season, Sampson said, "it's just fighting hard and coming together as a team at the end and saying, 'We have to stop this from happening.'"
Appling made six free throws in the final 32 seconds to seal the win and send the stunned Gophers to their 20th defeat in their last 26 Big Ten games. The Spartans haven't lost at Williams Arena in six years.
"They've got a lot of pride. They play with a lot of toughness. They play with a lot of confidence," said Smith, who fell to 1-11 against Michigan State in five seasons at Minnesota.
After playing a steady game at point guard for most of the night, Welch started succumbing to the Spartans' pressure. Wood turned a steal into a dunk to cut the lead to 54-52 and had consecutive layups a little later off turnovers to bring Michigan State within 58-56. Joe Coleman was called for a double dribble. Then Green maneuvered his way inside for the tying score.
Hollins lost control of his dribble on the other end, and Appling made the first two of his clinching free throws. Out of a timeout, the Gophers had the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead back, but Hollins airballed a 3-pointer with 19 seconds remaining. He said afterward he might have rushed the shot.
"We've got to have guys at the end of the game we can go to and get stuff done, and we just can't seem to find that person," Smith said.
The Gophers, facing a clear shortfall in both athleticism and size underneath with star Trevor Mbakwe out for the season with a knee injury, played with confidence around the basket that they needed on the perimeter at the end of the game. Deep reserve Andre Ingram gave them some big rebounds and drew a charge on Green in the second half. Sampson had his soft hook shot in sync. Green, the conference's leading rebounder, had only two at halftime.
The Gophers led 48-39, their biggest margin of the game, after consecutive baskets inside by Rodney Williams and were still up 54-47 after three free throws by Andre Hollins, who tempted Appling to foul him on a frantic beat-the-shot-clock attempt from behind the arc. But Wood's quick hands and quicker feet on those fast breaks got the Spartans right back within striking distance, setting up the dramatic finish. The Gophers had seven turnovers in the final 7 minutes.
"It looked like our guys were just nervous. They just panicked," Smith said.
Meanwhile, the Spartans had only one turnover in the second half and five for the game.
"That probably won us the game," Izzo said.