EAST LANSING, Mich. – The Gophers seemed to watch in awe as Magic Johnson and his teammates on the 1978-79 Michigan State team strolled in to thunderous applause before the national anthem Saturday.
The Spartans were celebrating the 40th anniversary of one of the most storied NCAA championship teams — and definitely figures in college basketball history.
Gophers players seemed as caught up in the spectacle as the crowd. They were far from ready to compete in their third consecutive loss, this one an embarrassing 79-55 defeat to the No. 9 Spartans in front of an announced 14,797 at the Breslin Center.
“I don’t know if it was Magic Johnson’s fault that we didn’t play well,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re struggling offensively right now. Michigan State’s good. We’ve got to be able to get our confidence going. We’re easy to guard right now.”
Nick Ward broke out of a slump and helped the Spartans’ own three-game losing streak with 22 points and nine rebounds. Michigan State (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten) shot 52 percent from the floor and outscored Minnesota 40-20 on points in the paint.
The Gophers (16-8, 6-7) shot only 37 percent and committed 16 turnovers. All three losses this week were to ranked teams, as they lost at then-No. 17 Purdue on Sunday and at home to No. 19 Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Those two losses weren’t as one-sided as this one, though. Pitino said his players were “out of sorts,” reminding him of when they were crushed by 27 at Illinois on Jan. 16.
“Every team in this team goes through something like that. We have not been through it yet,” Pitino said. “We hadn’t lost two in a row.”
A 19-2 Michigan State run to begin the game was sparked by Matt McQuaid, who scored 10 of his 18 points in the first half. The Gophers cut into that deficit but still went into halftime down 35-24, as Dupree McBrayer’s layup attempt was blocked by Ward at the buzzer.
Ward ignited the crowd to open the second half with consecutive baskets, including an emphatic one-handed spike slam after running the lane and catching a pass in stride from Cassius Winston.
Winston was held to only 11 points after early foul trouble, but McQuaid picked up the slack. His fourth three-pointer made it 55-33, and that lead grew to 66-38 as the Spartans outscored the Gophers 31-14 to start the second half.
One of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, the Gophers were 5-for-14 from beyond the arc Saturday, but they couldn’t rely on their inside game, either. Jordan Murphy, the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, had only five points on 1-for-4 shooting and six rebounds in 29 minutes.
With Eric Curry sidelined (calf), Pitino started Daniel Oturu at center. He had a difficult matchup with Ward’s physicality but finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. Fellow freshman Gabe Kalscheur led the Gophers with 17 points.
“When we were driving, they were really closing the gaps,” Kalscheur said. “Their help defense was really strong. That was a big problem.”
Gophers leading scorer Amir Coffey, who averaged 18.3 points in Big Ten play, was held to four points on 2-for-6 shooting. He didn’t score his first basket until 8:22 remained.
Now the Gophers have to regroup before going on the road again to play Wednesday at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers, who entered Saturday night losers of six in a row, are one of several Big Ten teams that have had to battle losing streaks during tough stretches on the schedule.
Pitino’s team is in that same boat now, too, trying to keep from sinking fast.
“We’ve got to make sure we do our very, very best to get back to work in practice, prepare for a really good Nebraska team — and we can’t get in our own heads,” Pitino said. “This will happen in the Big Ten.”