The biggest crowd of the season came out Sunday, not only to see the Gophers face off against the Big Ten’s top basketball team, but also to honor the No. 34 jersey of one of the program’s all-time greats get lifted into the rafters.
Some of the legends of Gophers basketball history were on hand to honor Willie Burton, including former coach Clem Haskins and teammates from the U’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight teams in 1989 and 1990.
The energy in the building from Burton’s halftime ceremony lifted Richard Pitino’s team for stretches, but No. 11 Michigan State clamped down defensively to cruise in a 70-52 Gophers loss Sunday afternoon in front of a season-high announced crowd of 12,114.
“It’s a disappointing game,” Pitino said. “Appreciative of the fans, appreciative of Willie Burton, and obviously the day that he had. Disappointed that we couldn’t get a better outcome.”
Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur combined for 34 points, but the Gophers (11-9, 5-5) shot 28% from the field and were held scoreless for the last 2 minutes, 47 seconds of the game.
The Gophers returned home hoping to build on their first true road win Thursday at Ohio State, but they ran into a conference title contender trying to make a statement on the road.
The Spartans (15-5, 7-2), who got 35 points combined from Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, moved back into a first-place tie with Illinois in the Big Ten after dropping their previous two road games.
Michigan State’s defense forced Oturu and Kalscheur to make some tough shots to keep their team in the game. But the Spartans completely shut down Minnesota starters Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Alihan Demir, who scored just 15 points combined on 4-for-25 shooting.
“They really did have some open shots — they just missed them,” Izzo said. “I thought that was a big difference in the game.”
Winston opened the second half with a four-point play after being fouled by Carr while draining a three-pointer at the top of the key. That extended Michigan State’s lead to 12 points.
Cutting that deficit in half, the Gophers rallied behind Kalscheur’s back-to-back threes and a three-point play from Oturu that made it 39-33 with 17:01 remaining.
Minnesota’s surge would be enough to get the fans engaged again, but it failed to ignite enough offense to keep the Gophers within striking distance.
Carr was the spark the Gophers needed to pull of their first win in Columbus since 2005, a 62-59 victory Thursday that enabled them to sweep the season series. Carr’s 21 points included a game-winning three that night, but Michigan State limited his impact Sunday.
The sophomore point guard was swarmed by two or three defenders each time he drove hard to the rim off ball screens. What seemed to be his only wide-open shot of the game came after a steal midway through the second half, but Carr missed the uncontested layup after being thrown off by a trailing defender.
“I knew there was someone chasing me down,” Carr said. “I thought I was kind of being pushed [in] the air a little bit, so that affected my finish. But I should’ve finished it, regardless.”
Less than a minute later, Oturu picked up his fourth foul after charging at Michigan State’s Foster Loyer beyond the arc. The frustration mounted when the Spartans turned a nine-point lead into a 61-45 advantage after Tillman muscled in a basket at the 5:34 mark.
At that point, Gophers faithful started heading toward the exit. This was a special day for Burton, but it showed how far away Pitino’s team still is from competing with the Big Ten’s elite program.
Burton was grateful for the support he received Sunday, but he also repeated in his postgame news conference what he told Minnesota’s team a day earlier.
“My message to the team is opportunity,” he said. “[Haskins] kept us together and kept the game organized, but at the end of the day we the players were winning the game and making the final decisions.”