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Spartans were tougher down the stretch

Minnesota suffered a tough loss Tuesday night at home to Michigan State in their Big Ten opener.  The Gophers held a 15 point lead at one point but the Spartans battled back for an overtime victory.

Minnesota was up 39-26 at the end of 20 minutes and had played one of their more complete halves in some time.  The atmosphere was worthy of a league game and the fans were able to give their team a lift.  Michigan State then went to Nick Ward on the inside and Alvin Ellis on the outside to change the game’s momentum, and ultimately earn the victory.

“I give credit to Michigan State,” Richard Pitino said. “They showed really great toughness in the second half. We talked a lot about making sure we came into that locker room ready because we anticipated that they will fight back, which they did.

“I just thought the first 5 minutes in the second half; we let them set the rules and the tone and it really hurt us. They made some big plays tonight down the stretch. Alvin made those two free throws that were big. Tum Tum hits that three, so give them credit. Our guys fought, but Michigan St. found a way to win.”

Ellis had 20 points including those three treys and the game winning foul shots in overtime.  Tum Tum Nairn scored 13 points including a pair of triples.  They were clutch down the stretch but Minnesota still had game winning chances in both regulation, and overtime.  Minnesota (Amir Coffey and Nate Mason) missed them both.

“We have to find a way to win it,” said Pitino.  “You know these games always seem to come down to one or two possessions. Give Michigan State credit; they just found a way to win and we did not. There will be plenty more close games and hopefully we can be on the other side of that.”

A big issue was that Nick Ward muscled his way to 22 points on 9 of 13 shooting (plus ten boards and four blocks) while the three guys guarding him (Reggie Lynch, Bakary Konate, and Eric Curry) combine to score 9 points on 2 of 5 shooting (Curry made four free throws) with 13 rebounds and five blocks.  Konate had some strong low post defense on Ward towards the end but it was too little, too late.

Foul trouble limited Reggie Lynch to only 11 minutes on the court and that’s a major reason the Gophers were on the losing side.

“You saw at the beginning where Reggie was affecting Ward’s shots,” Gopher forward Jordan Murphy said. “Then Reggie got in foul trouble, and there was a huge difference with the type of swagger that Ward had throughout the game, when Reggie was guarding him and when he wasn’t, or when Reggie was being too passive.

“You can see the affect that Reggie has on the game, just being there bothers people’s shots. They’re more hesitant to go in the paint than when he’s not there. I think him being in foul trouble really does put more of a load on Eric and Bakary, but then again you still have to play hard.”

“(Nick Ward) has gotten himself in pretty good shape and I know he will continue to get better shape, but he was terrific,” Pitino said.  “Ever since Miles Bridges has been out, they have been going to him, which they should and Coach (Tom) Izzo obviously knows what he is doing there because he is a load and they put him in a spot that is tough to double off of.”

Coach Izzo felt that it was the Spartan defense that swung the game in their favor.

"To our credit, we scored more the second half, but we defended a lot better,” Izzo said.  “It was a hard team to defend. They were driving around us, they were going around us. They were taking it to us, drawing fouls right and left and every way else.

“So I’m really proud of the freshmen (Ward, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston) because I told them they have no idea, they think Duke and Kentucky and those teams are tough. Big Ten games, like I said, Matin Cleaves and Clem Haskins would have been proud of this game. It was a war."

It was a war but a war won by the Spartans.  And the loss will sting Minnesota.

“I think that we just made too many mistakes going down the stretch,” Jordan Murphy said. “We didn’t make the free throws we needed and we didn’t make the winning plays. I think we had some good looks, but just didn’t convert.”

Murphy himself missed 7 of 13 foul shots but he wasn’t the only one who had troubles at the line. Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer didn’t miss many (combined to hit 13 of 16 free throws) but the ones they did miss were late.

Murphy still had a game to be proud of.  The Gopher sophomore collected 21 rebounds which is the highest Gopher total in 51 years. Amir Coffey (17), Nate Mason (18), and Dupree McBrayer (14) were all in double figures along with Jordan (12) but those three playmaking guards made just 14 of their 39 attempts combined.

The Gophers will have to learn from this defeat starting with practice today.  It’s a tough loss to move on from, but there are 17 more Big Ten games to go.

“We just have to get back in the gym and work,” Dupree explained. “We didn’t win twelve games (in non-conference play) for no reason. We just have to get back in there and work, and like I said follow the scouting report for Purdue coming up, a big talented team that will be even more physical. We’ll have to be ready.”

“Stay together,” said Pitino. “We’ve been fortunate to win 12 games and it is easy to stay together when you win; it is easy to be happy when you win, but when you lose, you just got to find a way to not point fingers, learn from it.

“You got 17 more of these. This is a grind. Every year that I kind of go through that; I learn that and just got to make sure your guys stay confident, also learn why you lose and just find a way to get back up and prepare for obviously a good Purdue team in a tough road environment.”

Minnesota will spend New Year’s Eve in West Lafayette preparing for a New Year’s Day date with Purdue who is 11-2.  The Boilers have lost to Villanova and Louisville but has wins over Auburn, Arizona State, and Notre Dame.  Purdue faces Iowa this evening.


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