It wasn't easy, no big surprise for a Minneapolis-based team, but the Golden Gophers finally beat Sparty Friday night and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals with a 72-67 win.
It's been said all year that this Gophers team lacked leadership. It lacked a certain late-game tenacity. The team simply couldn't finish, and as a result, they lost very tight games to Texas A&M, Michigan State and Purdue, among others. But after the Spartans grabbed a quick three point lead in overtime, sophomore Devoe Joseph took the team on his back and got the Gophers over the hump. Over the close game hump. And over the Spartans. Finally.
Minnesota hadn't beaten Michigan State during the Tubby Smith era and Sparty had won 8 straight, 13 of the last 14 and 18 of the last 21 meetings against Minnesota. Suffice to say, it feels good to beat Tom Izzo's Spartans.
Let's spread some kudos before any criticisms.
Colton Iverson was tremendous. He was the physical offensive force the Gophers needed against, as one commenter described it aptly, the clutch-and-grab Michigan State defense. He had 12 points on 6-9 shooting and 4 rebounds. He was strong with the basketball and created multiple second-chances for the Gophers, even if it didn't always show up on the stat sheet.
Joseph, who picked the team up after Iverson and Damian Johnson fouled out, was a total non-factor in the first half. In fact, he might have had his worst first half of the season. But Joseph rebounded and played a composed second half and a stellar overtime. He finished with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 turnovers.
Blake Hoffarber find a way to get open against the Spartans and was 4-9 from three and finished with 12 points. He also crashed the glass and grabbed 5 boards.
Devron Bostick played 15 minutes. Mostly solid minutes. He crashed the glass. He moved without the ball. And he added a physical presence on defense. He finished 2-6 and took an ill-advised shot or two, but his minutes were clutch and helpful.
For the Spartans, Tom Izzo's team was as good as it usually is. They move with quick purpose on most offensive posessions and play half-court man defense as good as any team in the country. Raymar Morgan had a game-high 23 and was undoubtedly the best player on the court. Kalin Lucas was able to penetrate and finished with 18. But the Spartans faltered at the free throw line. Morgan was 9-14. Draymond Green--who threw a cheap elbow at Iverson--was 2-6. As a team the Spartans were an ugly 52 percent from the free throw line.
Minnesota also benefited from Izzo's decision to suspend junior sharpshooter Chris Allen for the game for allegedly "being a bad teammate." The Spartans sorely missed Allen's perimeter shooting, especially in the first half when the Gophers sat back in a 2-3 zone during a cold-shooting period for the Spartans.
While Minnesota had a couple things go its way, the Gophers didn't exactly do everything right either. Put another way, they could have played much better. Devoe was not good at all in the first half. Ralph Sampson III probably put together his worst game of the season. The sophomore big man wasn't up to the challenge of Michigan State's physicality. He took a step back to his tentative ways, and it often wasn't pretty. I have high hopes, however, that Sampson will rebound against Purdue in the semifinals. He put together a great game a few weeks back against JaJuan Johnson.
The Gophers also allowed the Spartans to climb over their back for the entire first half en route to 11 first half Sparty offensive rebounds. That's way, way too many. Minnesota did turn that around in the second half and began to build a decent lead.
The Gophers held leads ranging between 8 and 5 for most of the second half until, for some reason, the Gophers went into delay mode on offense. Instead of running their sets or their high screen and rolls, during many posessions during the last five minutes, the Gophers were content to spread the floor, run a weave at times, and isolate one of our guards. The slow-down tactic played into Michigan State's hands, as it has many of our other opponents in close games this year. Sparty was able to come back and tie the game and had a chance to win the game in regulation. This seemed like a game where the Gophers changed their style towards the end and began playing not to lose instead of to win. Sparty deserves credit too for tightening its defense down the stretch, but my biggest current gripe with Tubby Smith is his late game decision making.
Minnesota eventually triumphed. And damn it felt good. And we wouldn't be Minnesota sports fans if we didn't have to sweat every big game out. Hope to do it again tomorrow!