Both Minnesota’s men’s basketball team and Michigan State came into this season with high hopes.
But while the Gophers were thinking more along the lines of a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, the 12th-ranked Spartans were eyeing a national championship.
While the chance for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is still remote, Minnesota moved one much-needed step closer with its 69-55 win over Michigan State on Saturday at Williams Arena.
“At Penn State, our big rallying cry (was) we have to fight as hard as they do and just stay together,” coach Dan Monson said. “I said ‘This one is you’re going to have to fight as hard as them because they’re great competitors. You’re going to have to stay together, and you’re also going to have to play better.’ And I thought our guys really, really did that.”
Entering the game with three players averaging more than 18 points per game, the ultra-athletic Spartans seemed to have the upper hand over Minnesota.
They certainly didn’t have the upper hand in the first half as the Gophers defense shut down Michigan State’s offense.
Minnesota (12-9, 3-7 Big Ten) came out of the blocks and hit five of its first eight shots to grab a 10-5 lead with 13:48 remaining the half.
The Gophers kept a steady lead around six points throughout much of the first half and entered the locker room at halftime leading 31-25.
But the six-point lead hardly indicated how stymieing Minnesota’s defense was.
In the first half, the Gophers forced 10 turnovers, gave up only four second-chance points and didn’t allow the Spartans to score in transition.
The only time Michigan State had a chance to get out on the break, senior forward Zach Puchtel made a leaping stab to knock the outlet pass out of bounds, preventing a Michigan State lay-in.
“We gave up no transition points in the first half, and I thought that was a huge key,” Monson said. “Because, as I told our guys, that’s how they breathe; that’s their oxygen.”
While Michigan State (18-6, 6-4 Big Ten) did shoot 50 percent from the floor in the first half, they only managed 18 shots from the field, most of them with the shot-clock winding down.
But as the second half started, it quickly became obvious a six-point lead wasn’t much against such a high-caliber team in Michigan State.
After scoring just two points in the first half, junior guard Shannon Brown, who came in averaging 18.1 points per game, exploded for 10 of the Spartans’ first 14 points of the second half and helped give Michigan State just its second lead of the game, 39-37, with 11:53 remaining.
But once again, Minnesota’s defense clamped down as the Spartans made just four field goals the rest of the game, while the Gophers made nine of their final 12 shots to pull off the upset.
“This is a win to remember,” senior guard Vincent Grier said. “And it was a great feeling.”
Grier led Minnesota with 15 points and nine rebounds and was one of five Gophers to score in double figures — the first time this season Minnesota has done that.
Puchtel scored a career-high 13 points, senior forward J’son Stamper added 12 and senior guards Adam Boone and Maurice Hargrow each had 10 points apiece.
Michigan State wasn’t totally shut down on the offensive end, as Brown scored a game-high 19 points and senior center Paul Davis scored 17.
But the biggest surprise was senior guard Maurice Ager, who managed just six points — all in the first 10:15 of the first half —well below his team-leading 19.5 points per game.
“Maurice had a rough day,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They did a good job on him, but we didn’t do a very good job getting him the ball.”
Another reason for the Gophers victory: free throws.
For the second-straight game, Minnesota shot more than 75 percent from the charity stripe, knocking down 18 of 23 for the game and a pivotal eight of their last 12 to hold on for the win.
With the win, the Gophers moved out of last place in the Big Ten while the Spartans fell to fifth in the conference.
“As I told my team, I really do appreciate when you get what you deserve,” Izzo said. “Minnesota got what they deserved, Michigan State got what they deserved and there’s really not a lot of complaining to do either way.
“They play like that, they’re going to win some more games, too.”
© Copyright 2005 The Minnesota Daily