In a game that came down to the last possession, Michigan State grinded out a 71-69 win over Minnesota to improve to nine-straight wins with one of their most thrilling finishes all year.
The Spartans (14-2, 5-0) were powered to a season sweep of the Golden Gophers (10-4, 1-4) after freshman guard Max Christie’s second strong performance in a row with 16 points and 5 rebounds.
Despite battling the strain of 13 turnovers and managing one of their closest rebounding advantages all semester, the game-winning play came from redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser's layup after a behind the back pass from sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard.
After winning the tip, Michigan State took the lead on their very first possession on the strength of a layup from senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. The Spartans scuttled on defense early and raced out to a 7-2 lead with redshirt senior Eric Curry scoring Minnesota’s only bucket in the early going.
Curry continued to lobby for his cause in the paint, recovering from a stern Bingham block to get the ball right back for the score in the paint. After a fruitless possession and timeout, senior guard Payton Willis drained a three to tie it at 7 to briefly deflate the crowd.
Junior center Julius Marble inched the Spartans ahead with some work in the low post but after a single free throw from senior guard Eylijah Stephens, senior guard Luke Loewe’s stepback jumper gave Minnesota their first lead of the game.
And then there was Christie. The freshman answered back with a jumper of his own, only to turn around and close out hard on Loewe’s next attempt. Junior guard Tyson Walker flipped it to Christie as they broke down to the other end of the floor and he drained yet another three to give Michigan State a comfortable advantage once again on his way to a team-high 10 points in the first half.
Stretches like these more or less encapsulated the first half: Minnesota would draw closer on whatever lead Michigan State took, only for the Spartans' to grow it again, the deficit extending and slimming like an accordion. This sway came in a number of ways but no doubt it was helped by Michigan State’s 10 fastbreak points in the first half to Minnesota’s 0.
For instance, when sophomore forward Jamison Battle banged a three to cut Michigan State’s lead to three, it was Walker who got the rebound and blazed down the court, shifting through defenders with a swiftness that’s becoming a familiar sight at the Breslin Center. The point guard then broke to his right, drew a defender and opened a lane for Christie’s dunk for the easy basket.
Similarly, on the subsequent possession, Walker again drove the floor, penetrated the edge of the perimeter and passed it to Hall. Hall kicked it up over to senior forward Gabe Brown, who knocked down the triple to make it 21-13 in such a short stretch of time.
The Spartans batted around a nine point lead as the half began to wind down before Stephens started to chip away with a tremendous second-chance jumper after Bingham got a hand on it in the paint and subsequent a three to cut the lead to six.
Still, that rhythm of the half persisted. Marble hit two free throws to make it 34-28 in the final minute of the half but some late miscommunication led to one last chance for Minnesota to run a play to get a quality shot.
The Golden Gophers more than took advantage of the opportunity. Willis broke out over the top of the key with a pass from Loewe and nailed a late three, fist-pumping after his shot closed the half at 34-31.
The second half served as more of a race as opposed to the long momentum sways of the opening period as both teams found an added aggressiveness from the first second of play. Stephens opened the scoring with a jumper to draw Minnesota within one only for Christie to follow with a long two of his own.
Both teams dutifully traded blows and the Spartans held a 42-40 lead when Brown dove back for a steal on Loewe. Brown fell hard for the second time in the period and Loewe was called for the flagrant foul, sending Brown to the line for two made free throws.
Soon after, Walker drew Marble forward with a hand motion and skated to the basket, easily flipping the ball up for the score to make it 46-40. Battle and Willis, the usual suspects for the Minnesota offense, stepped up and chipped in a jumpshot and triple respectively to cut their deficit down to its slimmest margin as the fast break Michigan State rode in the first half faltered.
So Walker stepped up-again. From the left side of the arc, he nailed a long two and a three from the same spot on consecutive possessions to put Battle, Willis and the Golden Gophers right back at arm’s length at 51-45.
Not to say Minnesota heard any bell. The Golden Gophers two transfers continued to attack and whittled it back to 51-51 with a near-perfect stepback jumper from Battle. Moreover, Curry gave Minnesota the lead two separate times in a tight game with free throws on two trips to the foul line.
The Spartans late surge began simply enough when junior forward Malik Hall knocked down a three to make it 57-55 in favor of the home team. Besides a jumper from Christie, it was Hall who pitched in the crucial buckets to give his team the go-ahead as they battled in the waning minutes without Walker on the floor.
With a minute left and the score 69-65, Stephens downed two more foul shots to draw Minnesota closer. Hall missed a free throw of his own after a foul from Battle and after play resumed, Christie fouled Stephens for yet another trip to the line.
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As the crowd roared, Stephens calmly sank both foul shots and Head Coach Tom Izzo called a timeout with 18.1 seconds left. One last shot and without their go-to point guard on the floor.
Hoggard dribbled up, kicked it out to Christie on the outside. Christie leaked up and gave it back to Hoggard, who charged down the middle of the paint.
In an instant, he flipped a behind the back pass to his right to Hauser, flipping it up and in as time expired, the scoreboard read 71-69 and the Spartans mobbed each other in joy on the court.
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