MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Alvin Ellis III made two free throws with 10.6 seconds left in overtime to finish with 20 points and give Michigan State the lead, capping a 75-74 comeback victory by the Spartans over Minnesota on Tuesday after the Gophers took a 13-point lead into halftime.
Michigan State, the worst foul-shooting team in the Big Ten, was 8 for 20 from the line until Ellis stepped up with two swishes following a non-shooting foul by Nate Mason. Nick Ward had 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans (9-5, 1-0), who have been playing without standout freshman Miles Bridges.
Mason, who led the Gophers with 18 points, misfired on his off-balance jumper from the lane at the buzzer that would’ve won the game. Jordan Murphy had 12 points and a career-high 21 rebounds, but Minnesota (12-2, 0-1) lost its fourth straight conference opener under coach Richard Pitino.
Bakary Konate’s putback with 1:28 left gave the Gophers a 72-71 lead, but Eron Harris answered with a drive on the other end. Dupree McBrayer, who had 14 points, put Minnesota ahead again with a pair of free throws with 33.8 seconds left.
The Gophers still led by double digits around the midpoint of the second half, but Nairn, not at full strength because of foot trouble, coolly engineered the Spartans surge with Ellis and Ward as his wing men.
Mason plowed through a pick for a foul that sent Ward to the line with 28.3 seconds left in regulation, and he missed his free throw. But Amir Coffey’s attempt at a winner was well off the mark for the Gophers. Coffey had 17 points on 5-for-15 shooting in his first Big Ten game.
Slow starts for the Spartans have not been unusual, with coach Tom Izzo’s teams long having been well-built for March in part by brutal nonconference slates. This November was no different, with losses to Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke (ranked 18th, sixth, fifth and fourth in the latest Associated Press poll) that even triggered an apology from the hard-driving Izzo to his tired team for the unrelenting schedule.
Michigan State has been limping along this month, though, with the absence of Bridges to a severely sprained ankle looming large and inarguably factoring in some unimpressive recent performances on their home court including a loss to Northeastern and a four-point victory over Oral Roberts .
So here were the Gophers, favored by 6½ points on the latest betting line with a record entering Big Ten play matched only by Maryland. Their lone loss was last month at Florida State, which is No. 20 in the AP rankings this week.
Trying to distance themselves from a program-worst 8-23 record last season made worse by off-the-court trouble, the Gophers have been galvanized by the addition of transfers Lynch and Akeem Springs and thrived off the heralded arrival of Coffey . They played smothering defense in the first half, forcing 10 turnovers by the Spartans, and crisply and confidently moved the ball around on the other end while building a lead as big as 39-24.
They knew better than to get comfortable, though, against an opponent like Michigan State.
Michigan State: Ward’s emergence with fellow post players Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter recovering from knee injuries has been a bright spot for the Spartans. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound native, the lowest-profile member of this freshman class, has posted 22-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in three of six games this month.
Minnesota: Murphy, whose freshman performance was about the only bright spot for the Gophers last season, capably handled the load inside on both ends with Reggie Lynch mostly on the bench. Lynch fouled out with only three points and three rebounds.
Michigan State: The Spartans host Northwestern on Friday.
Minnesota: The Gophers play at No. 15 Purdue on Sunday.