Gophers postgame: A game well-played, but another opportunity missed at Michigan State

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  • January 11, 2014 - 6:45 PM

Read my full game story on the 87-75 Gophers' loss here.

Read my side bar on Malik Smith's special kind of clutchness here.

For about 30 minutes, the Gophers played with incredible poise and basketball intelligence. But in the end, it was the final five minutes that mattered, and Minnesota didn't show up for those.

It's hard to not view Saturday's close loss at Michigan State as a moral victory -- after all, the Gophers weren't really supposed to compete, much less nearly win. They put together one of the best games they've played (certainly at least early and late) and forced overtime in one of the most intimidating venues in college basketball. All of that should be applauded. The Gophers came ready for challenge and played up to their competition. They shot really, really well in the first half. They handled the ball. And even after they went through one of their trending "down" periods, they fought back at the end of regulation to force overtime. That takes serious maturity, something I wasn't sure Minnesota was ready to show.

But when asked about the positives after the game, Elliott Eliason could only shake his head.

"It's hard to say that now," he said. "It's just so disappointing right now. I'm sure we'll look at the film tomorrow, we'll look at the missed opportunities and we'll see then, but right now it's hard to distance yourself and see those things."

Because the reality is the Gophers could be 4-0 in the Big Ten right now. They were given a gift with Mitch McGary out -- and then Glenn Robinson III out for most of the second half -- against Michigan, and they were given a gift again when Adreian Payne (sore right foot) didn't suit up for Michigan State today. Certainly, in the  case of the latter, the Spartans are still an extremely good team even without Payne, but losing one of their top two players hobbled them in a meaningful way.

"There was so much inside-out attack with Adreian Payne," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "He's probably a top five pick, so when I heard he wasn't playing, I don't want him to be hurt but that was a nice pleasant surprise right before the game because he's a great player. He changes a lot of the game because he's improved so much."

Playing a team that was forced to go without him -- and then immediately getting off to a very strong start -- gave the Gophers an opportunity to secure a signature win they'll need come selection time if they hope to get an NCAA tournament berth. As Pitino pointed out, the Gophers have plenty more chances, but with Ohio State (home), Iowa (away) and Wisconsin (home) on deck, the road doesn't get any easier. Minnesota isn't going to keep getting gifts of the best opposing player sitting on the bench. And frankly, the Gophers can't rely on hot shooting to pave their way through an extremely deep Big Ten.

Saturday's game had plenty of positives. The Gophers showed they belonged on the national stage. But those of us who have watched a lot of this team knows they are nowhere close to having "made it." And they really could have used that win.

Other notes on tonight's game:

* Minnesota has NEVER beaten a top 5 team in a true home game in the history of the program. That's sort of unbelievable.

* The Gophers did a good defensive job on Michigan State for most of regulation with the exception of one player, Kenny Kaminski, who lit Minnesota up for five three-pointers. The Gophers did shut down the versatile freshman a little better in the second, when he made just one shot from behind the arc.

* Calling Austin Hollins. Your party has entered the Big Ten. The senior once again produced a lackluster offensive performance, finishing with seven points, but picking up five rebounds.

*Adreian Payne doesn't have a fracture but is simply dealing with soreness, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He wanted to go last game, he didn't feel he could go this game," he sai. "Nothing medically wrong that we can observe." Izzo also said that Gary Harris is far from being at full-strength.

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