There are going to be a lot of headlines about MSU "surviving" or "stealing one" in Minneapolis today. I'm not buying it. Minnesota is perhaps the only team in the league that can match MSU in size, athleticism, and depth--and, on top of that, they made some very good basketball plays today. This victory was fully earned.
At the 10:53 mark in the second half, Minnesota led the game 53-42. That lead was largely a function of two things:
- A phenomenal offensive effort by Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph. The two Gopher guards combined to score 32 points on 23 FG attempts for the game. A few of those points were due to MSU defensive lapses, but by and large their combined scoring efficiency was a function of making tough, contested shots. (I'm pretty sure Westbrook, in particular, had an MSU defender near him in close space on each of his 6 made field goals.)
- MSU's inability to score inside. For the game, the Spartans shot just 35.1% on 2-point attempts. That was largely a credit to the Minnesota interior defense, led by the incomparable Damian Johnson who posted 5 blocks to go with 3 steals. Ralph Sampson III somehow ended up with only one blocked shot in the box score. But it was a monstrous block--snatching the ball out of Durrell Summers' hands on an attempted offensive putback.
Despite the frustration cuased by those two factors, the MSU players didn't lose their composure. After turning the ball over several times early in the game, MSU finished the game with a turnover percentage of just 16.4%. (Tubby Smith once again decided against using full-court pressure.) And their 3-point shooting, usually the first thing to go when MSU's confidence is waning, was nothing short of phenomenal: 11-24 (45.8%). Eventually, Minnesota tightened up on offense, scoring just 11 points in the game's final 20 minutes (and just 2 in the final 4 minutes), and MSU took advantage of it.
The scoring distribution was unbalanced for MSU. The three sophomores combined to make just 2 of 20 FG attempts. Delvon Roe could never get things going against Sampson and company, and Korie Lucious' jumpshot wasn't falling. Draymond Green was just 2-9 from the floor but one of the two baskets was on a one-on-one post move against Ralph Sampson (against whom Green conservatively gives up 6 inches) to draw MSU within 2 points with 3 and a half minutes to go. He also dished out 3 assists, pulled down 7 defensive rebounds, and blocked 2 shots. Down the stretch, Green was playing center in a hyper-small lineup, and he came up very big (bad pun intended).
Four players combined to score 60 of MSU's 65 points (box score is here):
- Kalin Lucas scored 22 points on just 14 FG attempts, adding 5 assists vs. 3 turnovers. Lucas took a few bad shots in the first half of the game, but with MSU's big men nullified, he was forced to manufacture a lot of plays. The last such play was the pull-up, flailed-legs 3-pointer to break a 62-62 tie with 87 seconds left in the game.
- Raymar Morgan scored 17 points on a perfect shooting line (6-6 from the field, 3-3 from the line) to go with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. Morgan picked up his 3rd and 4th fouls early in the second half trying to guard Lawrence Westbrook. Izzo decided to roll the dice and reinsert him in the game at about the 12 minute mark. Morgan responded by scoring 11 points from that point forward--as good a 10-minute stretch of basketball as he's played in his career at MSU. (Gripe: Can we quit with the turning-our-backs-on-the-in-bounder strategy on out-of-bounds plays? As far as I can tell, it's not doing anything to create problems for our opponents. But it is resulting in easy baskets for them. Morgan's 4th foul was the result of being out of position on Westbrook after Westbrook in-bounded the ball and then got it back. Later, Westbrook got a layup with 3 seconds left on the shot clock by throwing the ball off the turned defender's backside.)
- Chris Allen kept MSU in this game by actively looking for and knocking down 3-point looks. He finished the game with 12 points on 4-7 three-point shooting.
- Durrell Summers scored a quiet 9 points; he also contributed 3 steals. Thankfully, his brain freeze on the attempted dunk of a Lucas layup still hanging on the rim wasn't the difference in the game.
Over the full 40 minutes, this game was a statistical dead heat--as any game decided by one point is going to be. MSU's slight edge on the offensive glass didn't translate into many points (Roe had 5 of MSU's 13 offensive boards). Tom Izzo's tongue-in-cheek statement that a free throw was the difference is perhaps defensible on statistical grounds--although I don't think you can attribute it specifically to Derrick Nix's made free throw.
Minnesota fans will, I'm sure, be perplexed by the lack of a foul call for the Gophers in the final few seconds. Westrbook looked like he drew some contact on his drive to the basket and the chase for the final rebound was a full-on scrum. I won't argue the technical aspects of the play (and I haven't watched the replay yet); I'll just note that officials swallowing their whistles in the final seconds of a college basketball game is a pretty common event. MSU put themselves in the advantageous position of defending a lead on the final play and was rewarded for it.
7 up and 7 down in Big Ten play, my friends. This one maybe counts a little more than the other 6: the first tough win away from home for MSU this season.
Next Up: The currently-Manny Harrisless University of Michigan Wolverines. Tuesday night at 7:00 in Ann Arbor. ESPN.