WASHINGTON – When the Big Ten tournament bracket was released, the overwhelming reaction from Gophers fans was frustration in having to play Michigan State for the third time.
The thought was the Spartans were a bad match-up because they beat Minnesota twice, including the Gophers’ worst loss of the season — an 18-point defeat in East Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 11.
But Richard Pitino’s squad is a much different team since the last meeting.
The fourth-seeded Gophers advanced to the conference tournament semifinals for the first time since 2010 with a 63-58 win against Michigan State on Friday at the Verizon Center.
The Gophers (24-8), who have won nine of their past 10 games, took advantage of the program’s highest seed and a double-bye. They now will play a Michigan team in Saturday’s semifinal that is writing its own remarkable story.
The Wolverines’ plane skidded off the runway on Wednesday, delaying their travel to D.C. The team had to use practice jerseys in its first game, with the luggage stuck in the plane investigation. Finding inspiration in the extra madness, Michigan is peaking and upset top-seeded Purdue on Friday in overtime, 74-70.
Now these two teams with stunning comeback stories, of sorts, will meet for the right to play in the Big Ten championship game. The Gophers had to work hard Friday against Tom Izzo’s physical team to earn their semifinal spot.
“Toughness wins for us,” Pitino said. “We didn’t have a problem with trying to beat them at their game.”
No Gophers player was tougher than Reggie Lynch, who led Minnesota with 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting and added five blocks, tying the school’s conference-tournament record.
The 6-foot-10 junior center spoke to reporters after the game with his mouth bleeding, having nearly lost a tooth while taking an elbow. His tooth was pulled back into place during the game, but he decided not to wear a mouthguard.
Gophers fans in attendance were concerned when Lynch got called for a foul and left the court after getting hit in the face by Spartans center Nick Ward following a shot block.
“[Ward] got me pretty good,” Lynch said. “I’m surprised that wasn’t called an offensive foul.”
Lynch followed the trainer into the hallway with a towel over his mouth. Once he went through concussion tests, the Edina native returned to his strong play.
“I felt like the team was flowing,” he said. “They were happy to see I came back. Maybe they had a little bit of incentive to play for me. And I wanted to play for them.”
Dupree McBrayer hit back-to-back three-pointers to give Minnesota a 41-33 lead with 12:56 left in the second half. But the Spartans (19-14) tied it 49-49 after an alley-oop dunk by Miles Bridges five minutes later.
Bridges, who had 20 points, was proving to be a problem for the Gophers, who couldn’t stop his highlight-reel dunks in a 65-47 loss at Michigan State. But Lynch provided a spectacular slam of his own, going baseline for a two-handed flush on two defenders to give Minnesota a 54-52 lead at 4:31. Lynch added two free throws and a Jordan Murphy dunk made it a six-point advantage at 2:40.
The Spartans cut it to 58-54 on Ward’s basket plus the foul. But he missed the free throw and Michigan State wouldn’t get any closer.
Bridges and Ward combined for 30 points and 18 rebounds in a 78-51 win Thursday against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament second round.
The freshmen pair had 35 points and 18 rebounds Friday, but Lynch and Murphy held their own inside, with 26 points and 17 rebounds combined.
The Gophers avoided a big injury with Lynch, but they received a blow when Akeem Springs left the game in the second half. The senior captain landed awkwardly and needed assistance into the locker room.
Springs is likely done for the season, with an Achilles’ tendon injury. He gave Minnesota an earlier lift with a buzzer-beating three-pointer for a 28-26 halftime lead.
Amir Coffey had 13 points and Murphy added 10 points and 13 rebounds for the Gophers, who held Michigan State to 33 percent shooting Friday.
Michigan big men D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner will be another test for the Gophers’ frontcourt Saturday. Wilson had 26 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in the upset over Purdue.
“They got talented bigs,” Murphy said. “They’re not to be taken lightly. They went to overtime with us at our place [83-78 Minnesota win Feb. 19]. We definitely know what they’re capable of.”