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Updated: February 22nd, 2012 11:46pm
Upset bid fades away as Gophers let late lead slip in loss to Spartans

Upset bid fades away as Gophers let late lead slip in loss to Spartans

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Missed opportunities are something the Gophers have become all-too familiar with this season.

Wednesday brought yet another crushing, last-minute defeat.

Outscored 14-3 in the final three minutes, the Gophers let a nine-point second half lead slip away as No. 6 Michigan State stormed back to hand them a devastating 66-61 loss -- their fourth straight.

"It looked like our guys were just nervous. It looked like they panicked," coach Tubby Smith said of the game's closing stretch. "We just folded. We folded under pressure."

For 34 minutes the Gophers outplayed the uncharacteristically sloppy and disheveled Spartans. On the back of Austin Hollins' team-high 17 points, the "U" compiled a nine-point lead with six minutes remaining. Hollins, Rodney Williams (10) and Julian Welch (10) each tallied double-digit scoring nights as the "U" had five players put up eight points or more.

The end result, however, was the same as it was in stinging losses to Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin -- all three of which saw the Gophers have a chance to clinch a victory in the waning seconds.

Michigan State found its resolve when it was needed most. Meanwhile, the Gophers, who had been logging an impressively strong performance, collapsed. 

After committing only three turnovers in the first half, the "U" coughed up the ball 10 times in the last 12 minutes to finish the game with 15 total. The Spartans capitalized. All 17 of the points they scored off turnovers came in the final 20 minutes.

The Gophers held possession with time to salvage a tie or take the lead with 29 seconds to go, but a missed 3-pointer from Hollins gave Michigan State the window to seal the victory from the free throw line.

"We got outplayed for most of the game. I'm not going to make no ifs, ands or buts about it," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "It's a tough game when a team plays that hard to falter at the end. I feel for them."

Per usual, Draymond Green was an anchoring force for the Spartans. The senior forward recorded 17 points to go with his five rebounds and five assists. Michigan State guard Keith Appling made up for a slew of mental lapses by adding 13 points, including four crucial free throws at the game's close.

Realistically, the Gophers' NCAA tournament chances appear to be squandered. Holding a 5-10 record in Big Ten play, they would need a late-season run like the one Smith's squad mounted in 2010 to squeak out a tourney bid.

The skinny

The Gophers scored three consecutive baskets to open the game, bucking their usual tendency for slow starts. Michigan State kept pace thanks to a trio of 3-pointers from Green.

Lagging defense by the Spartans allowed the Gophers to prevent a five-point deficit seven minutes in from escalating. The scoring funk that had overtaken Hollins against Northwestern (0 points) was set aside quickly. He captained the "U" attack by contributing eight points in the first half -- six of which came off 3-pointers.

"I thought our guys were ready to play," Smith said. "Guys were pumped up and taking it to Michigan State."

Momentum was the Gophers' to take, despite Brandon Wood's go-head jumper with two seconds left that put the Spartans up 31-30 at halftime.

They seized the chance at the start of the second half.

Hollins served as the spark. The sophomore guard hit a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers to propel the Gophers to an 18-7 run, which resulted in the formation of a nine-point lead by the midway mark of the half. Michigan State could find no consistency, missing on countless scoring chances.

But gradually the Gophers' concise and in-sync play disintegrated. The turnovers mounted as Michigan State clawed its way back into contention. The Spartans missed only two of their 10 field goal attempts in the final eight minutes.

The "U" relinquished the lead for the first, and eventually final, time in the half when Wood dropped in the tying lay-up with 1:42 remaining. Appling's pair of free throws a minute later put Michigan State in front -- a development the Gophers couldn't respond to.

"It came down to execution," center Ralph Sampson III said. "We got a little jittery at the end ... In the closing seconds things got out of control for us."

Turning point

With the score tied at 58 apiece with 32 seconds left, an ill-advised foul on a mistimed attempt by Williams to stop Appling from driving the lane set-up the pair of go-ahead free throws.

Smith called a time-out on the ensuing possession to map out a rebuttal, but the flustered Gophers botched the chance.

The Spartans met them with heavy pressure at the top of the key, eliminating any openings for easy shots. Hollins let off an attempt from outside 24 seconds before the buzzer that Michigan State had little trouble reeling in.

"We've got to have guys at the end of the game that we can go to and get stuff done," Smith said. "We just can't seem to find that person."

Numbers game

1-16: Gophers' record in their last 17 regular season match-ups with the Spartans.

6: Years since the Gophers defeated Michigan State at Williams Arena (2/11/2006).

22: Assists for Julian Welch in his last three games. He finished with eight assists -- one short of tying his career-high (9), which he set last week against Ohio State.

12: Games this season in which Michigan State's Draymond Green has hit at least two 3-pointers in a game. Green opened with three consecutive baskets from long-range before ending the night 4-of-8 -- all four of which came in the first half.

Overheard

"They outplayed us... We played very dumb."

-- Green, on Michigan State's struggles throughout the night.

"I'm proud that we found a way to win a game that we didn't deserve to."

-- Izzo said about his team's comeback.

Up next

No. 23 Indiana heads to Williams Arena Sunday (12 p.m. 1500 ESPN) in a rematch of the Gophers' lone signature victory this season. The "U" shocked the Hoosiers -- ranked seventh in the nation at the time -- on Jan. 22 with a 77-74 win in Bloomington.

Indiana (21-7, 8-7) has recovered from a mid-season slump to post victories in five of its last seven games, placing them fifth in the Big Ten standings.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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