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True Grit: Michigan State 53, Minnesota 48

Without doing much of anything especially well, Michigan State willed itself to a huge road win against Minnesota, improving their tournament resume in a big way. In a game where neither team could achieve much separation, MSU held the Gophers without a field goal in the last four-and-a-half minutes, going on an 14-1 run to secure the hard-fought win.

With the Big Ten becoming a defense-optional league this year, this one was an old-school defensive battle. In a 61 possession game, MSU held Minnesota to .79 points per possession, by far their season low, which was enough to overcome their own .87 PPP mark. To win a game with a scoring mark like that is an achievement indeed.

After one of the ugliest stretches of basketball you're likely to see this year, Michigan State managed to go in at halftime down only 21-19. The game was 8-8 at the 10-minute mark and if it weren't for Kalin Lucas, and a couple of timely threes from Draymond Green, the Spartans would have been hard pressed to hit double-digits by the halfway point. Things didn't come much easier for Minnesota, who rode the inside play of Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe, and a highly effective 2-3 zone defense, to their two point edge.

The Spartans played better in the second half, twice stretching their advantage to a 6-point lead. But the Gophers answered each time, and looked poised to put the game away when they went up 47-39 on a Chip Armelin layup with 4:33 remaining. That's when the Spartans, reminiscent of teams of old, put the clamps on and only allowed a single free-throw the rest of the way while scoring enough to secure the win.

I normally like to confine my analysis to a dispassionate consideration of the numbers, but frankly, in this one, it's hard to figure out just how MSU pulled it out. It was defense, just enough rebounding, free-throw shooting, Kalin Lucas and sheer determination. The four-factors graph gives an indication of how it went.

It was another bad shooting night for the worst-shooting team in the Big Ten. The Spartans shot a passable 48% on their twos: the trouble is they took almost half their shots from beyond the arc where they were a dismal 6-24 (25%). Those long misses were also tough to rebound and they pulled down only 5 of their 31 misses, losing the battle of the offensive boards 21.2% to 23.5%. They seemed to have no new thoughts on how to handle the 2-3 zone, being just as ineffective against it, if not more so, as they have been in its previous appearances. When they tried to go inside they had shots blocked (5 blocks for the Gophers on the game) or the ball slapped away. They spent a lot of time passing around the perimeter, nobody wanting to shoot, until they were forced to jack it up and, predictably, missed most of them.

They did hold Minnesota to 37.5% shooting on both twos and threes. They were very successful at hassling the Hoff, as leading scorer Blake Hoffarber was only able to score 5 points on 1-8 shooting, the one being a three-pointer after an offensive rebound left him unmarked for a kick-out. Trevor Mbakwe was the most consistent offensive threat, but he only ended up with 13 points on 12 shots and committed 3 turnovers. Ralph Sampson III was moderately effective, but scored 6 of his 10 points in the first half and was fairly quiet after that.

So the question was whether Tubby Smith would play his bench or trust his veterans. He went with the young guys and it was very nearly enough for Minnesota to pull it out. Austin Hollins played 26 minutes, Chip Armelin 21, Maverick Ahanmisi 14 and even Dominique Dawson was in for 3. They combined for 18 points and 6 rebounds and Armelin became the latest unheralded player to have one of his season's best games against the Spartans, scoring 12 points, including 2 crucial threes. He showed some nerves, however, after beating Mike Kebler with a chance to tie in the closing seconds, when he decided to take the long jumper instead of driving to the hoop. The shot clanked out and Kebler iced the game from the line after that.

Player bullets after the jump.

  • Kalin Lucas - Lucas continued to tarnish his legacy with 18 points and 4 steals (sorry, couldn't resist), though he only had 1 assist. He also played solid defense and was the primary reason MSU was still within reach after the first half. However the season ends up, Lucas has done his part to keep the dream alive despite numerous disappointments.
  • Draymond Green - He didn't have his best game, but hit two threes in the first half to keep it close and pulled down 10 rebounds and had 4 steals and three assists.
  • Delvon Roe - had a quietly effective 1-point, 2-rebound performance. He picked up Lucas with 3 assists and had a giant sequence at the end, tapping the ball out twice on one possession for offensive rebounds that eventually resulted in Appling's two free-throws that grabbed the lead. Warrior.
  • Mike Kebler - Raise your hand if you thought you saw Kebler's ceiling LAST year, playing significant minutes in tournament games. He had his third straight 20+ minute game and sealed the win with two free-throws. I never thought I'd say this, but he probably should have shot even more than he did, though he did combine with Keith Appling on two sweet fast-break layups at the beginning of the second half. He also played solid defense against whoever they asked him to guard, including, at times, 7-footer Ralph Sampson III.

Keith Appling was also impressive, increasing his season free-throw percentage to 93% with four clutch free throws at the end to take the lead. Durrell Summers is still in a funk, but he scrapped his way to 7 points on two dunks and an important three towards the end. A number of other players, notably Adreian Payne (4 pts, 2 reb) and Austin Thornton (2 pts, 3 reb) contributed to the win.

In the end the Spartans dramatically improved their chances of making the NCAA tournament, raising their conference record to 8-7 and they now have three chances to hit the .500 winning percentage that would likely lock up the bid. And this was a road win over an RPI top-50 team, which always helps. Now they move on to a chance for revenge against Purdue and, looking down the road, the possibility of avoiding a two-game sweep by any of their conference opponents. Achieving that would be a positive conclusion to an otherwise perturbing season for the Spartans.