Moral victories galore, but Gophers fall to Sparty

Two historical footnotes were working against the Gophers on Saturday as they traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State: 1) they hadn’t won at MSU since 1997; and 2) they hadn’t beaten a top-5 team in a true road in the history of the program. Those are impressive numbers. So it’s no surprise that expectations were low heading into the game, as Minnesota sought to do something the program had never accomplished.


But instead of rolling over and spotting Michigan State a quick 15-point lead, the Gophers grabbed control of the game right away, heading to halftime with a five point lead and even pushing the lead as high as 10 in the second half. And that’s when it all started.

As the Gophers have been wont to do this season, they completely disappeared on offense for a long stretch. But unlike other games where droughts have lasted between 5 and 7 minutes, Minnesota went THIRTEEN minutes without a field goal. Thirteen. And from the 15:57 mark of the second half until Malik Smith hit a three pointer with 2:34 to go, the Gophers scored only eight points, which were all on free throws. It was a pitiful showing for the offense, and it bordered on the unbelievable. But even as the Spartans went on a 15-0 run to take the lead, the Gophers somehow managed to force overtime, thanks to a crazy conversion near the end of regulation from Drizzy Mathieu. But further offensive woes in the overtime period sunk the Gophers as they were outscored 16-4 in the extra period, losing 87-75.

I know we’re all tired of “moral victories” around these parts, especially after years of waiting for Tubby Smith to right the ship. But with a new sheriff in town and a patchwork team of FIU misfits, forcing overtime on the road against Michigan State is something that I didn’t think this team was capable of. Amelia Rayno may have put it best:

It’s hard to not view Saturday’s close loss at Michigan State as a moral victory — after all, the Gophers weren’t really supposed to compete, much less nearly win. They put together one of the best games they’ve played (certainly at least early and late) and forced overtime in one of the most intimidating venues in college basketball. All of that should be applauded. The Gophers came ready for challenge and played up to their competition. They shot really, really well in the first half. They handled the ball. And even after they went through one of their trending “down” periods, they fought back at the end of regulation to force overtime. That takes serious maturity, something I wasn’t sure Minnesota was ready to show.

Yes, the Gophers gave away a game in which they had a 10-point lead, but in a venue where they haven’t won in more than 15 years, and in a situation that no Gopher team has ever succeeded, I didn’t expect this team to do what it did tonight. And depending on what your expectations are for the team this year, it’s safe to say that they exceeded what was expected when all was said and done.

That said, there were some glaring negatives that came out of the game, and Minnesota certainly fell victim to some bad habits that have plagued them in each of their losses this year. I mentioned the frighteningly common tendency to disappear for minutes on end when on offense. This is familiar because it happened with Tubby fairly consistently, but today was something else. For a team that shot better than 50% from the field in the first half, it managed to go completely dark for more than 10 minutes in the second. That’s completely unacceptable, no matter who the opponent is. And once again, Austin Hollins’ head was somewhere else. He scored in single digits for the second straight game and made some boneheaded decisions that weren’t the product of a clear mind. For a senior who has shown to have a pretty good basketball IQ, two straight subpar performances from Hollins is concerning. The Gophers need a couple of rocks from their veterans, and Hollins hasn’t been that of late.

The Michigan State game was the first of a brutal four-game stretch that pits Minnesota against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. With missed opportunities against Syracuse, Michigan and Sparty, the Gophers are showing that they can hang with good teams, but can’t quite get over the hump to take one down. There will be plenty more of those opportunities this season, but a couple things need to change if they’re going to cash in.

Notes/Thoughts:

  • Malik Smith played 31 minutes off the bench, scoring 17 points and connecting on 5-10 three pointers. He almost single-handedly brought the team back down the stretch, and was part of the barrage that pushed the Gophers out to an early lead. A human roller coaster, Smith went cold for much of the second half, but that comes with the territory of having a player like him.
  • Andre Hollins held up his end of #Hollinsanity, scoring 24 points and going 8-8 from the line. He also nabbed 5 rebounds and doled out 3 assists. A gritty performance for one of the team’s leaders.
  • I don’t know how he does it, but Mathieu makes so many circus shots that it can’t be a fluke. He had a couple in this game where he appeared to be out of control, but drew the foul/contact and somehow got the shot to fall.