(Box score here, best of #LawofGus tonight here)
We've spent all season saying how this team was different that last year's team. Well, Thursday night was almost an exact copy of last season.
One year ago, a dismal shooting performance in Minneapolis led to MSU trailing the Gophers 47-39 with 3:41 to go. But MSU rallied, Keith Appling hit some late free throws to give MSU the lead, and the Spartans won 53-48.
Thursday night, the Gophers led 58-52 with 3:25 to play, but the Spartans rallied down the stretch, Appling hit free throws to give MSU the lead, and MSU came away with a 66-61 victory.
Oh, and both games came on Feb. 22.
With the win, MSU (23-5 overall, 12-3 Big Ten) still controls its destiny in terms of an outright Big Ten title. Winning two of the final three games would guarantee at least a share of the title.
A Brandon Wood driving floater gave MSU a 31-30 lead at halftime, but the Spartans had plenty of issues. First, they took 16 three-pointers in the first half (making five of them), compared to 12 two-point shots (making eight). The Spartans only averaged 15 three-point attempts per game coming into Thursday. The Gophers (17-11, 5-10) also had a edge in rebounding, and often prevented MSU from getting the ball inside (sometimes due to a zone defense that gave MSU fits).
Those problems only got worse in the second half, as Minnesota started scoring more inside, and MSU couldn't find a bucket, falling behind 42-34 with 13:03 to play. Every time MSU tried to rally, the Spartans would make a dumb decision.
A breakaway dunk by Appling cut the deficit to 42-38, but Appling held on to the rim too long, resulting in a technical foul. (We can debate about rule forever, but it was the correct call). Minnesota extended the lead to 48-39 with 10:28 to play. (Remember that time).
A layup by Wood cut the deficit to four, and MSU forced a contested three-pointer later in the shot clock, but Appling fouled the shooter. Three free throws, Minnesota lead back to seven points with 6:23 to go.
Wood got a breakaway steal a dunk with less than five minutes to go (making sure he didn't hang on the rim), and cut the deficit to two points. But Appling fouled a Minnesota shooter late in the shot clock again. Two free throws and a four-point lead. Then Appling missed a jumper and the Gophers hit their first field goal in about seven minutes. A six-point lead with 3:25 to play.
But as often the case with this MSU team, the defense resulted in a rally. Wood hit a tough jumper, then had a fast-break layup off a Minnesota turnover. After another stop, MSU got Draymond Green isolated in the post, and he hit a layup to tie the game. Another stop, and MSU had the ball with less than a minute to play.
This time, Appling got the bailout call when Minnesota's Rodney Williams fouled Appling late in the shot clock around the three-point line. Appling hit both free throws, giving MSU its first lead in about 18 minutes. Minnesota air-balled a three-pointer with 22 seconds left, and Appling and Austin Thornton hits free throws to seal the improbable comeback victory.
Yes, Minnesota pretty much choked away the victory (running clock with more than three minutes left is never smart), but give credit to MSU's defense, which wouldn't give the Gophers any good looks down the stretch. Minnesota hit a three-pointer with a second left, giving them two field goals in the final 10:27 of the game. The Gophers finished with 14 turnovers (including five in the final four minutes), while the Spartans had a season-low five turnovers.
Green didn't play that great, but still finished with 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals. He didn't have a two-point bucket in the first half, but made some big free throws and shots down the stretch for MSU. Again, it didn't seem like a great game, but he filled up the stat sheet. MSU is 10-0 when Green records five rebounds and five assists in a game.
He also passed Delvon Roe for No. 2 on the MSU all-time blocks list. The Big Ten Player of the Year Award is his to lose down the stretch.
Aside from the bad fouls, Appling had his second straight solid game. he shot just 3-for-8, but made 7-of-8 free throws and finished with 13 points, three steals, five assists and no turnovers.
Brandon Wood might have been the player of the game for MSU. He finished with 13 points, including some big buckets in the second half. I'd venture to say it might have been his best game of the season. Without the shoulder pad on, he drove into the lane and scored in a variety of ways, instead of just being a three-point shooter, which he has been recently. He also had two rebounds, two assists and one steal.
Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne were bothered all night by the length of Minnesota, and the pair finished with 13 points and three rebounds.
The Spartans shot 22-for-53 (42 percent) for the game, while the Gophers shot 21-for-46. Minnesota's 46 shooting percentage was the highest allowed my MSU since Michigan made 51 percent on Jan. 17, ending a streak of eight straight opponents making less than 40 percent. After taking 16 three-pointers in the first half, MSU took just four in the second, missing them all. The 20 three-point attempts were the second-most for MSU in Big Ten play (21 against Penn State).
After starting 2-for-7 from the free-throw line, MSU made 15 of its last 16 from the charity stripe. The Gophers were the fourth team to outrebound MSU this season, this time by a 31-22 margin. Both teams had seven offensive boards.
With the win, MSU remains one game ahead of Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten standings. While MSU fans were upset Northwestern couldn't upset the Wolverines last night, U-M fans were feeling the same way tonight. Meanwhile, Northwestern and Minnesota likely remain out of the NCAA tournament for now, both failing to pick up major resume-boosting wins at home.
Next up is a home game against Nebraska on Saturday night. Tom Izzo said after the game that the swelling on Travis Trice's ankle has finally started to go down, but his chances for Saturday are "slim." Given how worn out the Spartans looked Thursday, they need another reliable player to come off the bench right now.
On the road to a championship, you need to steal some wins. This was one of those games for MSU. They're in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but you know that's not on their minds right now. They want an outright title, not a share of it. Especially if they have to share it with Michigan.