The tension of possibility hung in the air as Kevin Dorsey stepped to the line.
The Gophers, in the middle of a season marked by bad losses and disappointing play, suddenly had their fans captivated and the nation’s No. 1 team — albeit with a pretty big asterisk — on the edge.
The announced crowd of 12,836 was on its feet as Dorsey sunk the first free throw but missed the second, still keeping his team within two points of Michigan State with just over two minutes to go.
But the magic disappeared. The Gophers, mostly effective in the second half without much help offensively from their seniors or starter Jordan Murphy, couldn’t get the stops they needed down the stretch and tumbled to a 69-61 loss at Williams Arena.
One of their best efforts of the season netted them only a third consecutive defeat, their sixth loss in seven games and an 0-2 start to Big Ten play.
“We’re a program all about winning and losing,” senior Joey King said. “There are really no moral victories with us. But when it comes down to it with the guys that were out on the floor, we competed, we played hard, it was a two possession game most of the time.”
That the Gophers (6-8) were even there seemed unlikely, even with Michigan State’s all-around star and National Player of the Year contender Denzel Valentine on the bench following recent minor knee surgery. The Gophers displayed an energy and resiliency that has been mostly absent all year. Michigan State (14-1, 1-1 Big Ten), conversely, has looked different since losing Valentine on Dec. 21.
“We are missing a hell of a player, and I don’t care if it’s an excuse or not,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, who received the game ball from his players for his first victory since the death of his father, Carl, at age 90 on Monday. “We’re just patch-working everything.”
The Gophers trailed 32-29 at halftime despite shooting 35.3 percent from the floor and losing Murphy to foul trouble with 6:30 left. They tied the score 32-32 less than a minute into the second half when Carlos Morris ended up with the ball following a pair of Murphy misses at the free-throw line, made a layup while being fouled and converted the three-point play.
Without Murphy playing the starring role, though, the Gophers fell behind by 10 when Michigan State launched a 9-0 run capped by forward Deyonta Davis’ jumper nearly midway through the second half.
“Their front line is still unbelievable without Valentine,” Murphy said. “I can only imagine what it’s like with Valentine. They’re a top-five team in the country for a reason.”
Still, the home team charged back once more, getting a three-pointer and a pair of free throws from King and two threes from Nate Mason, the last of which brought the score to 58-56.
The Gophers weren’t their most efficient, but they played tough defense, turned the ball over only four times and withstood big games from Matt Costello (17 points, 15 rebounds) and Bryn Forbes (20 points, six rebounds).
“When we’re not a great scoring team, we need to understand, you’ve got to junk it up,” coach Richard Pitino said. “Make it look ugly, get stops and rebounds.”
Unfortunately for the Gophers, at the very end, they couldn’t. After Dorsey hit one of two free throws to pull them within 63-61 with 2:24 left, they came up empty — first on a Murphy dunk — which was stuffed by Costello — then a pair of jump shots. Meanwhile, Davis found the basket once for Michigan State, and Costello and Eron Harris both hit two free throws to end it.
“I think that was some of the best basketball we’ve played yet,” Murphy said. “We grew a lot during that game.”