It was hard to tell the last time a Gophers men’s basketball team was favored against Michigan State, but the fact that it was Tuesday said a lot about where both programs were heading into Big Ten play.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s team was clearly better than last season. And Tom Izzo had his worst team, record-wise, through the nonconference schedule, playing mostly without injured freshman star Miles Bridges.
But the Gophers couldn’t stop freshman Nick Ward and blew a 14-point second-half lead in a 75-74 overtime loss to the undermanned Spartans to open the conference schedule in front of an announced crowd of 11,407 at Williams Arena.
“We’ve got to find a way to win,” Pitino said. “These games in the league always seem to come down to one or two possessions. … There’s going to be plenty more close games. Hopefully, we can be on the other side of that.”
Dupree McBrayer drilled two free throws with 33.8 seconds remaining for a one-point Gophers lead in overtime.
But Michigan State senior guard Alvin Ellis III, a former Gophers recruit, drew contact from Mason with 10.6 seconds left on the clock and calmly made two foul shots for the game’s final points.
Mason, who led Minnesota with 18 points, watched his potential winning jumper from the lane go errant at the buzzer.
“I think we made too many mistakes down the stretch,” said Jordan Murphy, who had 12 points and a career-high 21 rebounds. “We didn’t make free throws when we needed and didn’t make the winning plays.”
Amir Coffey had 17 points for the 12-2 Gophers, whose six-game winning streak ended. Ellis had a career-high 20 points. Ward had 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans, who trailed by 15 points in the first half.
Izzo challenged players at halftime to play tougher like Spartans greats such as Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green.
“I challenged them about their own families,” Izzo said. “Because I thought we embarrassed ourselves how we got pushed around that first half. To our credit, we scored more in the second half, but we defended a lot better.”
Bridges, who averaged 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds in eight games, missed his sixth game in a row because of an ankle injury. He hasn’t played since a Nov. 29 loss at Duke.
But Ward showed why he is the new go-to freshman for the Spartans.
He got Gophers big men Reggie Lynch, Bakary Konate and Eric Curry to all pick up four fouls by the eight-minute mark in regulation.Lynch, the Big Ten leader in blocks, fouled out with 4:41 left after Ward scored on a hook plus the foul to make it 60-59 Michigan State.
Curry replaced Lynch, but he couldn’t stop Ward, either. The 6-8, 250-pound Ohio native scored back-to-back baskets, including a reverse layup to give the Spartans a 64-61 lead.
The Gophers didn’t wilt, though. Mason’s basket inside made it 66-65 with 1:51 to go, and with 45.5 seconds left, he went to the line for two free throws. He made the first but missed the second, leaving the score tied at 66-66.
Coffey had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but his floater fell short.
The Spartans (9-5) trailed 39-26 at halftime, and the deficit was still 54-40 midway through the half. But Michigan State was a different team after Izzo’s halftime speech, as the Gophers shot only 25.8 percent from the floor in the second half and overtime.
Ward’s dunk followed by five consecutive points from Ellis capped a 15-1 run. Ellis’ layup tied it at 55-55 with 6:53 remaining.
Coffey drew a foul and made two free throws to give the Gophers a 57-55 lead, but Ward responded to tie it again.
Ward was the difference Tuesday, but the Gophers will face an even tougher inside presence Sunday with Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate.
“Nick Ward is a big load, so they went to him,” McBrayer said. “Basically, we need to do a better job on the scouting report.”