One. This One Hurts.
Basketball is all about momentum and not just within the game, but from game to game. Minnesota had a faltering Spartan club down 15 points and then all of sudden they weren’t able to handle the lead. Nate Mason went from steady to 60 seconds of crazy early in the second half with his bad pass and even worse contested jumper (when MSU had scored three straight times). At a time when Mason needed to settle his team down, he did the opposite. That fueled the Spartan fire.
Defensively the Gophers had a brilliant first half of play. Their rotations, box-out hits, closeouts, and everything in between were as good as we’ve seen. Then once the second half hit and foul trouble came into play the team stopped playing with intensity and began to compete tentatively. Reggie Lynch was a complete non-factor with five fouls in 11 minutes while counterpart Nick Ward scored 22 points and dominated the paint.
Also, late in the game the shot attempts that Minnesota got in one on one attempts just weren’t good enough. Amir Coffey had a chance to win the game in regulation but air-balled a one hand off balance attempt. Nate Mason’s end of the game overtime attempt was off balance falling left and quite frankly wasn’t a good look. The last two minutes of both the second half and the overtime didn’t produce enough good shots for the Gophers.
The bottom line is an NCAA Tournament team beats struggling teams in their own house. Sure the 12-1 record was great and there is a lot of season left but blowing a 15 point lead to a struggling team is a big red flag. Especially with Purdue coming up on New Year’s Day. A loss at Purdue isn’t a big deal when it leads to a 1-1 record, but when it leads to a 0-2 Big Ten start that’s a problem.
There are 17 Big Ten games left in the year and plenty of chances to get to the 8 or 9 win mark this team so covets. But tonight, they let a game they should have won slip away. Michigan State is a team that needs to be beaten now when they are inexperienced and injured. Minnesota failed to do so.
Two. Bad Foul Shooting.
First off, know that Michigan State was worse at the foul line. Nick Ward was a dreadful 4 of 13 and the team was 10 of 22. Minnesota finished the game at their season average of 69 percent but key foul shots were missed down the stretch that could have completed the win. Nate Mason was 7 of 8 from the foul line but his one miss was late. Dupree McBrayer was 6 of 8 from the foul line but one of his misses was late. Jordan Murphy usually struggles from the foul line but his 6 of 13 included late misses. The Gophers must get up to that 73-75 percent foul shooting or it will cost them another game or two.
Three. Nick Ward Dominance.
Bakary Konate came off the bench late to block a Ward shot, force a turnover, and force a couple misses and Ward’s low post dominance was gone but it was too little, too late. Ward played 33 minutes and made 9 of 13 field goals for 22 points. Down the stretch he scored spinning left, spinning right, spinning through doubles, and powering through hesitant defenders. Meanwhile, the leading shot blocker in the Big Ten was on the bench watching (Lynch) with foul trouble. Eric Curry came on but foul trouble led to him basically staying behind Ward and getting worked over. Bakary did the best job but it wasn’t enough. The Spartans have one big and that one big crushed Minnesota’s centers.
Four. Alvin Ellis Haunts Minnesota.
Spartan senior Alvin Ellis came into the game averaging four points a contest. He’s been injured during his career, in and out of the rotation, and quite frankly has not had the years he’s wanted to. However, he saved his best performance for the team he originally signed with, Minnesota.
Remember when Richard Pitino came to the Gophers 3.5 years ago and let Ellis out of his national letter of intent? You can argue all day if that was good or bad, evidence over four years says all parties agree it was the right move. But don’t think for a second that Ellis scoring 20 points including three treys isn’t something that has put a huge smile on his face. After Murphy had a great defensive first half, Ellis was able to get loose around the arc and get open looks. Ellis also hit the game winning free throws when his team was down a point.
Another guy haunting Minnesota was Tum Tum Nairn, a player the Gophers really wanted until Tom Izzo swooped in late and grabbed him during recruiting season. Tum Tum has been struggling with his shooting touch all season. In fact he made as many threes tonight as he has all season (two). But Nairn scored 13 points and helped limit Nate Mason to 5 of 14 shooting.
Five. Jordan Murphy with a Huge Day.
What Jordan will likely remember is the Ellis scores late in the game when the Gopher defense had a terrible time defending screens away from the ball. But Murphy’s first half of defense, and parts of the other game, was as good as we’ve seen from him. Jordan was making plays in help, fighting around screens, and rotating over more consistently. Now the Gophs need that for every minute of the floor and Jordan will be even better.
Murphy was pretty good all things considered. He had to play 42 minutes because Konate, Lynch, and Eric Curry were in foul trouble which is likely one reason he had some troubles late in the game (that and the fact that he was chasing around small forwards instead of banging with power forwards like he usually does). Jordan scored a dozen points and grabbed 21 rebounds which is the highest total since Melvin Northway had 21 in 1965. His effort in 42 minutes of play was not only excellent, it was historic.
Extra. Not Enough Good Shots
It wasn’t just late in the game that Minnesota had trouble creating clean looks, it was for long stretches early in the game and for much of the second half. The shooting percentages were simply ugly. They made only 3 of 13 treys and shot just under 38 percent for the game. Amir Coffey missed 10 of 15 attempts, Nate Mason 9 of 14 attempts, and Dupree McBrayer 6 of 10. With every possession Minnesota’s quality of shot went down and did not recover in the way they needed to win.