Michigan State coach Tom Izzo saw pretty clearly that experience made the difference in his team opening Big Ten play Tuesday night with a 75-74 overtime win at Minnesota.
Izzo, a 20-year veteran and Hall of Famer, thought his Spartans embarrassed themselves down 13 points at halftime, but he was encouraged with how much more composed his players were down the stretch.
“This is the best Minnesota team I’ve seen in a while,” Izzo said. “I think it’s one thing that’s always left to do: learn how to close out games.”
Alvin Ellis III isn’t one of Michigan State’s starters, but he was one of the most experienced players on the court – and it showed.
"These young guys, they haven't been through this Big Ten conference play," Ellis said about the Gophers. "We know it's tough, and I've been through it."
Ellis, a Chicago native who got out of his signed letter of intent at Minnesota after Tubby Smith was fired in 2013, scored a career-high 20 points Tuesday, including 12 points in the second half and overtime. Junior Tum Tum Nairn also had 11 of his 13 points after halftime.
Amir Coffey and Nate Mason couldn’t be the heroes after missing potential game-winning shots off isolation plays in regulation and overtime for the Gophers. Mason and Coffey led the team with 18 and 17 points, respectively. But they combined to shoot just 10 for 29 from the field.
"I thought they were close," Pitino said on the last-second shots. "I thought they were decent looks. Just didn't go in for whatever reason."
The Gophers, who shot just 8-for-31 in the second half and overtime, lost 17 games the previous two seasons by one or two possessions. They had been 3-0 this year before Tuesday in games decided by six points or fewer, but weaknesses of the past came back to haunt them against the Spartans.
Minnesota had been able to rely on its defense to win games in nonconference, but Michigan State shot 54 percent in the second half and overtime Tuesday. Foul trouble also plagued the Gophers, who had four players with at least four fouls, including Reggie Lynch fouling out.
REBOUND HISTORY: Jordan Murphy's 21 rebounds Tuesday were the most for a Gophers player since Jim Brewer had 22 rebounds vs. Marquette in 1972. The last U player with 20 rebounds was Richard Coffey against Grambling in 1987.
Murphy’s previous career high was 17 rebounds last season against South Dakota. He had his fifth double-double this season with 12 points. But the 6-foot-6 sophomore shot just 3-for-7 from the field and 6-for-13 from the foul line.
IZZO PRAISES U: Izzo has been high on the Gophers ever since before the season started, saying at Big Ten media day in Washington D.C. they were one of the most improved teams in the conference.
Even after the Spartans pulled off the comeback win, Izzo said he thought Minnesota had a chance to have a good season in the Big Ten.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “I think some guys on their team have really, really improved. Coffey, they recruited him, so I knew how good he was. But, you know, Murphy, McBrayer, and Mason have improved a lot since last year. This is going to be a good team. They’re going to win a lot of games I think.”