Tubby Smith insists he's not a fan of using pregame motivational "gimmicks," but his coaching staff turned to one before Monday's Big Ten opener against Michigan State.

The Gophers coaches spliced together video of Mike Tyson's sledgehammer punches and showed the boxing clip right before the team took the court. The players understood the symbolism.

"You've got to hit them first," Trevor Mbakwe said.

Ironically, the Gophers ended up proving something else to themselves and their fans: They can take a punch.

That was the most encouraging development on a day in which the Gophers climbed to No. 9 nationally before tipoff and took a solid first step in conference play with a 76-63 victory against the Spartans in a packed and rowdy Williams Arena.

"There's good vibes going around," point guard Andre Hollins said. "We're just feeding off of it."

Their conference opener was billed as a barometer game. A true test to demonstrate if this Gophers team is as good as the ranking suggests. A chance to show they can compete with the Big Ten heavyweights, even if this Michigan State squad is not as formidable as previous versions. It's still Michigan State, and the Gophers wanted to show they're willing and capable of answering that challenge.

"It's a great test," Mbakwe said. "We've all been looking forward to this game for a while. Michigan State is always a tough team."

And in typical fashion, Tom Izzo's Spartans made life hard on the Gophers with their aggressiveness and tenacity. The mood inside the old Barn was restless as the Gophers hit a lull midway through the second half and lost their grip on things.

The Gophers started standing around on offense, which resulted in turnovers and bad shots. The Gophers butchered so many inbounds plays against Michigan State's zone that the Barn's faithful offered a Bronx cheer whenever they managed to get the ball in cleanly.

Michigan State used a 15-3 run to turn a seven-point deficit into a 59-54 lead with nine minutes remaining. Gophers fans have seen that before, and it usually doesn't end well.

"In years past, we probably would have lost this game," Mbakwe said.

Except this time the Gophers didn't wilt. They didn't fade away and just allow the Spartans to run them off the court. Instead, they regrouped and responded. They showed a willingness to fight back.

"Every year we don't want the same thing to keep happening," Mbakwe said. "We came out of the huddle with six minutes to go and said, 'This is our time to finally get Michigan State.' "

The Gophers raised their intensity on defense and made stops. They limited Michigan State to four points in the final nine minutes.

On offense, the Gophers became aggressive again and attacked the basket. They scored the game's final 12 points to pull away. We're not used to seeing a Gophers team play with that kind of purpose and determination when pushed by a tough opponent.

"In years past, we might have started arguing or panicking, and then the game most likely would have went the other way," senior Rodney Williams said. "This year we didn't panic at all. We stayed together."

That's a sign of a mature team. The Gophers didn't play flawlessly: They had 16 turnovers, made only 13 of 22 free throws and saw their halfcourt offense bog down in several stretches. They can play better.

We know the Gophers have talent, but they showed some resolve, too. They showed their leadership. That will serve them well as they progress through the Big Ten schedule and find themselves in tough spots again, especially on the road.

"We definitely needed to prove that to ourselves," Williams said. "Just to show the type of fight and type of heart and togetherness we have on this team."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com