EAST LANSING, MICH. – The Gophers might have little to play for at this stage of the men’s basketball season, but closing out another losing season in Big Ten play, they showed they still have some fight left.
Carlos Morris hit a tying three-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation before the Gophers got to the free-throw line 20 times in overtime and fought off a tough and physical Michigan State team for a 96-90 victory Thursday night at the Breslin Center. The victory, which ended a three-game losing streak, was the Gophers’ first in East Lansing since January 1997.
Michigan State trailed by as many as eight points in overtime, but it pulled to within three with 39 seconds left after Denzel Valentine hit his seventh three-pointer of the night. But the Gophers (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten) closed it out, hitting five of six free throws down the stretch.
“We’ve been through so many close games,” Morris said. “Everybody knows that. We just kept fighting and kept fighting and we pulled it out.”
The Gophers started out 0-6 in conference games decided within six points, but they have three of their past four decided within that margin. Once again, the Gophers showed growth where earlier shortcomings stung.
With the Spartans nursing a three-point lead and 12 seconds left in the second half, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo decided not to foul on the Gophers’ final possession. But Morris, coming off a down screen, got open on the left wing and let it fly, as he had done so successfully all night. As the three-pointer fell, Gavin Schilling crashed into Morris, sending him to the line with 2.2 seconds to go and the score tied. The junior college transfer — sometimes baffling but mostly brilliant all night — missed the free throw but the play set up an overtime period, which the Gophers dominated.
“I didn’t want to foul with that much time left,” Izzo said. “It’s a choice I made and a choice I’ll live with.”
In overtime, the Gophers made their only two shot attempts from the floor, including Mo Walker’s layup that gave them the lead for good at 81-79. But they also kept going to the line, finishing 14-for-20 from the stripe in OT. Meanwhile, Michigan State went 1-for-6 from the floor and 5-for-9 from the line.
The Spartans, who trailed 69-67 with 1:59 to play on Joey King’s layup, scored the next eight points, leading 75-69 with 34 seconds to go after Mo Walker missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Travis Trice — who had pushed his team up with back-to-back three-pointers — sank three of four free throws.
But Morris hit a pair of unlikely threes, sandwiched around King making three free throws (he had two such three-point plays on the night). Those plays gave the Gophers the second life they needed. Also giving them life: Valentine missed one of two free throws with 12 seconds left, keeping the Gophers within three points.
Five Gophers finished with double-digit scoring. Morris led with 20 points, while King and Andre Hollins — rebounding from a two-game slump — posted 17 each. Valentine led Michigan State with 27 points, including 15 in the first half, and Trice added 21.
“I think we’ve just stayed the course more than anything,” coach Richard Pitino said. “Guys have been really positive, blocked out the noise … I don’t want to say we’ve been unlucky, but I don’t know if we’ve been real lucky. So we just had to create our own luck.”