EAST LANSING, MICH. - Coming in, the ramifications were obvious: This was the one that could change things around.
If the Gophers men's basketball team wins at No. 12 Michigan State, it makes a recent turnaround legitimate and creates the foundation for the start of something good. But if it loses, it is tagged a team that remains a notch below the Big Ten elite.
While the No. 18 Gophers (17-6, 5-5 Big Ten) threatened late in the game, they allowed the momentum to reverse so quickly it seemed as though it never existed in a 61-50 loss to the 12th-ranked Spartans (19-4, 8-2).
Kind of feels like an analogy for the season.
The Gophers fell back to .500 in the conference, a disappointing destination considering the early hype and 3-0 start. From here, the road gets only tougher, the challenge of creating that foundation more difficult.
"We still believe," senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. "It's going to be tough, but we're looking forward to it, and we still have high confidence."
Maybe so, and it's not impossible -- for the Gophers have certainly shown sparks -- but considering the concerning trends that have plagued the Gophers all season, it's starting to look less and less likely, and those involved are looking more and more frustrated.
After overcoming one gap in the first half, the Gophers found themselves in a 12-point hole midway through the second. Again, they rallied back, reaching within four points on an Austin Hollins free throw with 2:48 to go.
But just as it had earlier in the half, the Minnesota offense stalled, allowing the Spartans to finish on a resounding 12-3 run to seal the victory in front of the announced crowd of 14,797 at the Breslin Center.
"When you give up easy baskets, just throw the ball to the guy, those are just back-breakers, it takes all the wind out of it," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "It's like getting punched in the gut."
The Spartans initially broke open a seven-point lead in a cold-shooting first half by both teams but then watched as Minnesota went on an 8-0 run to retake the lead and keep the 20-18 advantage at the break. Rodney Williams (nine points, four rebounds in the game) and Mbakwe (nine points, 14 rebounds) starting working more efficiently inside until Mbakwe was fouled hard, falling on his rehabbing right wrist. He played the remainder of the game with his wrist taped.
In the second half, a flurry of three-pointers (Michigan State made nine overall, including four from Gary Harris, who was returning from back spasms) put the Gophers back into a hole despite their limiting forwards Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson to a combined 13 points.
In trying to react to the Spartans' increased defense in the paint, the Gophers instead played a stiff, sloppy offense, turning the ball over 12 times overall, which Michigan State cashed in for 19 points.
Afterward, a clearly frustrated Andre Hollins seemed out of answers for a team that has made poor ball-handling a habit, and one of the most obvious sources of their five losses.
"We beat ourselves again, that's it -- that's all I'll say," he said. "I think we just need to get some continuity going offensively. We're just standing around sometimes and I guess we're getting well- scouted, I guess that's it. And I don't know."