Sandell: Gophers send a statement in resilient win against Spartans
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Rarely in the last two years has the noise level in Williams Arena reached the decibel count produced Monday, as the newly minted No. 9-ranked Gophers took down No. 18 Michigan State, 76-63, to open the Big Ten season.
The sellout crowd, another recent rarity, had reason to be excited. The "difference" between this year's Gophers squad (13-1) from past years in coach Tubby Smith's tenure, which has been endlessly discussed in the season's opening months, suddenly became more palpable.
The start of Big Ten play served as a major test, albeit an early one, in determining if the Gophers can indeed reverse the negative pattern they has followed for the last two seasons. In back-to-back years, they breezed through the non-conference slate only to fall apart when paired against upper-level competition in the grind of the Big Ten.
But on Monday, the Gophers delivered a warning shot to that trend, their way of saying, "things have changed."
After a slugfest of a first half, Michigan State found a way to bog down the Gophers into a sluggish, error-filled pace. A seven-point "U" lead disintegrated into a five-point deficit with nine minutes remaining.
However, thoughts that Smith's team was falling into an all too familiar form were set aside. With a starting lineup that finished with a combined 68 of the squad's 76 points, the Gophers went on a startling 22-4 run to end the game.
The victory granted the Gophers their first in a conference opener in three years, but more notably their first regular season win against Michigan State since 2006, ending an 0-12 stretch.
"That was definitely a statement game for us," forward Rodney Williams said. "In past years, we've come in (to Big Ten play) with similar records ... and we come out and lose the first one and the season goes downhill from there. We're a different team this year."
That showed in the Gophers' resiliency in the closing minutes -- a period that has been the program's downfall on numerous occasions in the last two seasons. Their newfound resiliency has been borne from a talented and veteran-heavy roster. But until facing Michigan State, there had been limited evidence to gauge how the Gophers would react when placed in a critical situation.
Centered around standout guard Keith Appling (15 points) and center Derrick Nix's aggressive inside presence, the Spartans stifled several attempts by the Gophers to breakaway in the first half. Minnesota led by as many as 12 points in the first 20 minutes, but Michigan State would not fade. A 13-1 run cut a comfortable lead into a one-point gap at halftime (39-38).
The Spartans' persistency finally seemed it would be enough to outlast the Gophers, who had started to wear down. Up against a suffocating zone defense, the Gophers could not complete even the most routine of plays -- in-bounding the ball. Michigan State claimed its first lead just over five minutes into the second half by forcing its opponents into five turnovers in a four-minute stretch. The rally sent a hush across the maroon and gold clad crowd, faced with the possibility that they were witnessing more of the same from the Gophers.
However, the aggressive up-tempo offense that had given the Gophers the lead in the first place was hastily rediscovered. Trying to take Nix out of the picture, the Gophers began getting the Spartans big-man isolated and in position for guard Andre Hollins to sneak by. Hollins, who notched a game-high 22 points and six assists, took control of the surging offense.
"We wanted to get (Nix) involved in the pick-and-roll because he's slow and doesn't hedge fast," Hollins said. "I knew I could beat him and I could either pass to Trevor (Mbakwe) or I would have the jump shot. We utilized that well."
In a change of identity, the Gophers didn't appear to be a team that was being overwhelmed by magnitude of tightly contested Top-25 match-up. They continued to expose open lanes in Michigan State's defense, freeing up guards Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman for several key shots throughout their dominating late rally.
It also helped that the Spartans had become lost in a jumble of offensive miscues, shooting just 19% in the last 10 minutes -- a striking contrast to the Gophers, who were 7-of-12 from the floor in that stretch (58%).
"I thought today we played with our heart and toughness, but we played with our head as well down the stretch," Smith said.
That has to be the norm, instead of a one-game occurrence, in the Gophers' remaining 17 Big Ten games for them to have an opportunity to follow through in the lofty expectations that continue to build around the program.
Ultimately, one impressive conference win does not stand as the mark of a grand turnaround and proof this is the team to end the Gophers' two-year NCAA-tournament drought. But when signs of dramatic progress take place, it's hard not to speculate that there really is a "difference" on display.
"This is a different team from last year and the year before. We're a lot stronger not only mentality, but physically as well," Austin Hollins said. "We all came into the game knowing we could beat them, but actually going out there and doing it really helps your confidence. But we can't sit on this win for too long ... We have 17 more Big Ten games. This is just the first one in a long journey."