Michigan State men's basketball successfully opened conference play with a strong 75-67 road win over Minnesota.
The Spartans exorcised the demons of a 81-56 drubbing on Dec. 28, 2020 at Williams Arena with strong performances from junior guard Tyson Walker (15 points and five rebounds), senior forward Gabe Brown (15 points and eight rebounds) and junior forward Malik Hall (15 points and nine rebounds). All three provided due momentum for Michigan State when Minnesota managed to threaten a lead the Spartans took in the early minutes and would never relinqiush.
In their first seven games, Minnesota held opponents to a Division I best 23.1% shooting from three. Michigan State flipped the script on the Gophers and continued their newfound shooting success on the road, going 10-21 (47.6%) from deep while Minnesota struggled mightily at 6-23 (26.1%).
After Minnesota won the tip, both teams started slow, combining to go 0-8 from the field. Reshirt senior forward Eric Curry got Minnesota on the board with a layup over senior center Marcus Bingham Jr., but Walker answered on the other end with a drive of his own, drawing the foul to give Michigan State their first lead of the game.
Walker extended Michigan State’s advantage with a three as the Spartan’s defense continued to hold off Minnesota’s attack. The Spartans, accustomed to strong starts, continued to put it on Minnesota at both ends of the floor with a Hall three putting them up 12-6.
Minnesota surged as the Spartans offense slumped and the Gophers pulled within two when sophomore forward Jamison Battle knocked down a deep, quick three from the top of the perimeter. Once again, it was Walker who came to the rescue with a falling back triple over Battle to keep the Gophers at arm’s length.
Brown stepped up and hit his first three of the game to make it 23-17. Minnesota caught another break after a Michigan State turnover led to senior guard Payton Willis drawing a foul off Walker as he defended the basket in transition, cutting the Gophers deficit to five and sending Walker to the bench with two fouls.
On an ensuing possession, redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser stepped right into a three and Hall and freshman guard Max Christie kept the heat on Minnesota with a jumper and floater respectively to pull a 30-19 lead as the first half dwindled down.
Hall proved to be Michigan State’s difference maker in the early going with 11 points (4-6 from the field) and 5 rebounds off the bench. His final attempt of the half put the Spartans up 33-24, a welcome spark to a team playing in a raucous road environment.
Despite Minnesota’s best attempts, Michigan State’s combination of continued shooting success from the perimeter, aggression in transition and a hard-nosed defense that allowed them to go off for hard-hitting runs proved to be too much in the first half. The Spartans closed the period going a perfect 6-6 from the field, punctuated by a lefty floater from Brown to lead 37-24 going into the half.
In the second half, Brown picked up right where he left by opening the scoring with an in-and-out jumper from the foul line. Christie missed his first attempt but got it kicked back out to him in the corner for a second chance and knocked it down to improve their advantage to 18 points.
Minnesota’s clear motivation to defend the perimeter better in the second half allowed Michigan State to find quick and easy buckets in and around the interior to avoid the slow second half starts that have plagued them in prior games. Battle pulled the Gophers within 13 with a three and yet, Michigan State slugged back with sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard’s jumper from the foul line.
The Spartans had a momentary scare when Curry finished at the rim and Willis immediately stole a subsequent inbounds pass. Willis swung it over to a streaking Battle who cut Michigan State’s lead to 11 with a dunk at the tail-end of a deflating sequence.
Still, the Spartans just kept coming up with big plays. Freshman guard Jaden Akins raced down the floor to block Willis’ wide open layup in transition and Brown turned around to hit another three to improve to a commanding 53-37 lead.
Minnesota continued to lean on their interior presence for scoring chances in the second half and chipped in a run of threes as Michigan State slowly fell into another slump. The payoff was a 14-4 run capped off by a steal and dunk on the run by senior guard Sean Sutherlin to make it 64-55 with a little under five minutes to go.
And then there was Brown, knocking down another corner three when the Spartans needed it the most. Minnesota Head Coach Ben Johnson brought out the late press and the Gophers capitalized on turnovers forced and unforced as they needled their way back into the game throughout the final two minutes.
The Gophers fouled and hit key shots, the largest of the being a three from Battle to cut the deficit to five with 31.7 seconds left. Minnesota relented in the final 20 seconds and Michigan State dribbled out a 75-67 win.
The Spartans return to action on Saturday against Penn State.
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