DES MOINES – With his team trailing Michigan State by 17 points in the second half Saturday night, Jordan Murphy stood helpless but clapping furiously behind the Gophers bench in a warmup jersey.
Murphy, who was injured in Thursday’s victory over Louisville, stood to make sure his back didn’t stiffen up more than it already had after playing only four minutes in the first half.
Minus their All-Big Ten senior forward, the 10th-seeded Gophers cut a 20-point deficit to single digits in the second half, but they couldn’t keep the second-seeded Spartans from surging into the Sweet 16 in a 70-50 loss in front of an announced 16,770 at Wells Fargo Arena.
“My guys fought hard — and it was good to see them go out the way they did,” said Murphy, who checked in briefly late, leaving with 1:27 left to a standing ovation. “I tried to play through it, but I couldn’t move and I was really struggling out there, so I just told Coach I’d rather not be a hindrance to the team.”
The Gophers (22-14), who reached the second round for the first time since 2013, shot 30 percent from the field and saw their hopes for an NCAA tournament run end abruptly without their senior leader.
Junior Amir Coffey scored 27 points and led the Gophers on an 8-0 run that gave thousands of Minnesota fans in attendance and Murphy a reason to cheer.
Big Ten champion Michigan State (30-6) took a 40-23 lead after two free throws from Cassius Winston less than four minutes into the second half. But Coffey scored on back-to-back baskets, including a soaring dunk down the lane on Aaron Henry that ignited Gophers teammates.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino was frustrated at his team’s lack of transition defense, so he tried to cause some havoc of his own with a full-court press to create easy offensive opportunities.
Hard drives from Gabe Kalscheur and Coffey were rewarded with trips to the foul line. Suddenly, the Gophers were creeping close after Coffey’s two free throws cut it to 40-31 with 14:42 to play.
The atmosphere resembled Williams Arena after the Spartans were called for a shot-clock violation. Thousands of fans were up on their feet with Gophers players feeding off their energy.
But the shorthanded roster could sustain that effort for only so long.
Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, took over with seven consecutive points. Xavier Tillman’s layup made it a 9-0 run for a 49-31 lead, and the Spartans kept the Gophers at bay from there.
Winston and Tillman combined for 27 points for the Spartans, who shot 57 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle 45-19.
The Spartans, who advance to play Louisiana State in their first Sweet 16 since 2015, also defeated the Gophers 79-55 on Feb. 9 in East Lansing, but they played again Saturday for the earliest NCAA tourney game ever pitting Big Ten teams.
The Gophers weren’t able to show the Spartans just how much they had improved since that first meeting.
“I think we did a lot of things that people didn’t think we could do,” Coffey said. “We stayed resilient and played our game.”
In Thursday’s 86-76 victory over seventh-seeded Louisville, the Gophers hit 11 three-pointers, including five threes and 24 points from Kalscheur.
But they shot only 2-for-22 from three-point range Saturday. Michigan State limited Kalscheur to two points on 0-for-5 shooting from the field, including 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.
The absence of Murphy, senior Matz Stockman (concussion) and sophomore Eric Curry (foot) meant there wasn’t much the Gophers could do to compete in the paint.
It was the final college game for Gophers seniors Murphy, Stockman, Dupree McBrayer and Brock Stull. McBrayer, who also had a tough ending to his career with zero points on 0-for-7 shooting, still left the game for good near the end hearing applause from the fans.
“I’m very appreciative of the love they showed those guys,” Pitino said of four-year seniors and captains Murphy and McBrayer.
This wasn’t the ending the Gophers wanted, but they could still appreciate the journey that got them here.
“They just need to learn that this hurts,” McBrayer said about the program’s returning players. “You want to get back to the second round and be able to beat a good team. They just need to remember this in the back of their heads for when they get here next year.”