For 37 minutes, Minnesota played nearly flawless basketball.
With their tournament lives hanging in the balance, the Gophers flustered No. 6 Michigan State defensively, beat the Spartans to every loose ball and were just good enough offensively to take a 58-52 lead on Julian Welch’s jumper with 3:27 left in the game. Michigan State didn’t help matters, making a number of mental mistakes that allowed the Gophers to slowly build their lead, which reached nine at one point. Point guard Keith Appling was the biggest culprit, twice fouling jumper shooters (one of which came on a three) and picking up a technical foul (albeit a bad call) for hanging on the rim, which led to seven points on free throws for Minnesota.
Put after the jumper from Welsh, Minnesota collapsed in stunning fashion. Their next five possessions resulted in four ugly turnovers — the first three of which resulted in layups for Michigan State at the other end of the floor — and an airball on a three-pointer. All told, Michigan State went on a 12-0 run in the span of just over three minutes. It wasn’t until Andre Hollins hit an uncontested three with 1.8 seconds left that Minnesota was even able to get a shot to make contact with the rim.
When it was all said and done, the Spartans left the Barn with a 66-61 win.
That’s not exactly what your looking for when you try to pull off an upset.
“When you’re trying to be in a championship run, you’ve got to steal a game somewhere,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after the game, and that is precisely what the Spartans did.
And this game is precisely why I have always said that winning is a skill.
Michigan State had absolutely no business winning this game. Minnesota played as well as they have all season long for the first 37 minutes. They played well enough to win and, frankly, the Spartans deserved to lose. But the Gophers were timid down the stretch. They had no one willing to step up and take charge offensively. They had no one that wanted the ball in their hands. They had no one capable of taking and making a big shot with the game on the line.
And it cost them a marquee win that could have reignited their hopes of making a late-season push to get onto the right side of the bubble.
Michigan State, on the other hand, did everything they needed to do down the stretch to avoid an upset. They clamped down defensively and they didn’t panic offensively, capitalizing on the Minnesota miscues and leaving Minneapolis with a win.
While the disappointment in the Gopher locker room must have been palpable after the game — Tubby Smith’s post game press conference lasted just over three minutes, the shortest of the season — the Gophers weren’t the only ones that were upset with the outcome. Michigan State currently holds a one game lead over Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten standings. A loss would have opened the door for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines to step in and steal a share of the Big Ten title.
Instead, Michigan State still has the inside track to an outright regular season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s what champions do.
Win games they have no business winning.