EAST LANSING, MICH. – Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino and counterpart Tom Izzo sat on Michigan State’s bench during warmups chatting for several minutes before Thursday night’s game.
Izzo wasn’t trying to discover any secrets. The Hall of Fame coach praised Pitino on what he liked about his team despite losing stars such as Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy from a team that fell to the Spartans in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.
Playing at the Breslin Center ended up being the same result as the stinging NCAA tournament defeat. The Gophers gave the No. 8-ranked Spartans a hard-fought game until letting it get away from them 74-58 Thursday night in front of a sellout crowd of 14,797.
“They might’ve had a little more talent in some ways last year,” said Izzo, who beat the Gophers 70-50 last year to reach the Sweet 16. “But this is one of his favorite teams for me watching from the outside. They seemed to get along. They got a star at the center. They got a star at the point.”
But one of those stars, point guard Marcus Carr, was held to only 11 points after foul trouble limited him in the second half. Center Daniel Oturu finished with a team-high 22 points and 10 rebounds, but he got shaken up down the stretch.
The Gophers (8-7, 2-3 in the Big Ten) owned the rebounding edge by a plus-12 against their previous three league opponents, but they were overpowered physically 48-30 on the boards Thursday. They also shot only 39% from the field.
The two biggest stars in the game also belonged to Izzo.
After overcoming adversity earlier in the season with the death of Winston’s brother, the Spartans look every bit as solid as the team that reached the Final Four in Minneapolis last year.
“They just bullied us on the glass,” Pitino said. “They just wore us out. We were doing a lot of good things, but we just could not finish the possession — and that’s nothing new with them. That’s what they do. They keep coming at you.”
After an emotional double-overtime loss last week at Purdue, the Gophers were looking for their first true road victory of the season. They couldn’t finish again in a hostile environment.
The Spartan student section shouted at Oturu for the entire night, trying to get one of the Big Ten’s top players rattled. It didn’t seem to get under his skin, especially early when the Gophers led 28-24 in the first half after he ran the floor and dunked to silence the crowd.
Oturu, whom Izzo called the best post player they faced so far, received a scare late in the game.
The 6-10 former Cretin-Derham Hall star missed a layup and went down hard on his right elbow late in the second half. By the time he returned to the game, his team’s comeback hopes dwindled. A 59-50 deficit never got any smaller in the last six minutes.
Winston took advantage of Carr’s foul trouble and finished with 18 second-half points, but the Spartans manhandling the Gophers on glass made the difference in the end.
“I think we would’ve been right there if we rebounded the ball,” senior forward Alihan Demir said. “We have to figure it out next time. There’s another opportunity coming up this Sunday [vs. Michigan at home].”