Bum Phillips once was talking about Bear Bryant as a football coach and he said in Bum-ese: “Bear can take his’n and beat your’n, and turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has a similar reputation in basketball, and he pulled off another magic trick in the Big Ten opener on Tuesday night in Williams Arena.
The Spartans have been without senior big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter all season because of knee problems. More importantly, they were missing freshman star Miles Bridges for the sixth game in a row because of a severe ankle sprain.
The Gophers had put the embarrassment of 2015-16 behind them with a 12-1 nonconference effort, including 11-0 inside the Barn.
The attendance for those games was modest, as the basketball crowd bided time for the proper moment to take a look at the reinvigorated Gophers. That look coincided with the start of conference play.
The sizable audience was fully satisfied through the Gophers’ impressive first half, mortified by the Spartans’ comeback in the second half, and ultimately left muttering at the end of overtime.
The Gophers were down 75-74 with 10 seconds left. Nate Mason went toward the lane, pulled up for a jumper, missed, and then the ball caromed around for two closing seconds.
The defeat kept coach Richard Pitino goose-egged in conference openers: 0-4. The last time the Gophers won a conference opener it was over Michigan State in the Barn on Dec. 31, 2012, during what would be Tubby Smith’s last season.
The Gophers were 6½-point favorites this time, due largely to the Spartans’ injuries but also their impressive play. And for 20 minutes, it appeared as if giving those 6½ points would have been the advisable wager.
Pitino had been talking up his team’s defense since the start of the season, and it looked as if he had been too reserved with his praise. The Gophers absolutely were suffocating Michigan State’s attempts at offense.
The Spartans started off trying to get inside, obviously remembering the joys of doing that against the Gophers during the lost season of 2015-16.
The visitors were quick to discover this was a much different task with Reggie Lynch, the 6-10 transfer from Illinois State. His presence in the middle has made Jordan Murphy the second shot-blocking option.
The tandem — Lynch (two) and Murphy (one) — had three blocks in the game’s first 3 minutes, 5 seconds.
The Spartans were getting rejected at the basket and also finding it extra difficult to get an open jumper. The Gophers looked quicker and more gifted athletically than this State collection minus Bridges.
On the offensive end, the Gophers were forcing Michigan State into a barrage of fouls. The Spartans were called for 15 fouls in the first half and for 31 in the game.
The Gophers were leading 39-26 at halftime. They were shooting 54.5 percent from the field and constantly going to the free-throw line (13-for-18). Michigan State was shooting 34.5 percent and was 4-for-10 on free throws.
No lie. This had the appearance of a mismatch.
The Spartans had lost a game at home to Northeastern nine days earlier. The idea that Izzo could figure out a way to take his’n and win this game on the road seemed preposterous.
And then the Big Ten’s best coach got his team in the visitors locker room in the dungeon of Williams Arena.
“I challenged them with everything but the kitchen sink at halftime,” he said.
Izzo said that he brought up the embarrassment they were bringing to great Spartans of the past, such as Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
“I even challenged them about their families,” said Izzo, meaning even mom, dad and the siblings would be disgusted by the first half effort.
The challenge paid off with the first seven points of the second half, and the first uncertain grumbles from the crowd announced at 11,407.
OK, that number isn’t like old times in the Barn, but it was much better than what the joint has been holding since Armageddon arrived early in the 2015-16 schedule.
The Gophers pushed it back to 54-40 with 11:21 left, and everyone relaxed — perhaps even the Gophers.
Michigan State went on a 15-1 run to draw even at 55-55. It was a full-blown, ugly, Big Ten brawl now, and the Spartans finally left with the 75-74 victory.
Mark it down as another game where Izzo took his’n and beat your’n, even when your’n were 31-for-45 on free throws and his’n were 10-for-24.