Gophers given rude welcome in Big Ten opener, falling 75-67 to Michigan State

·4 min read

Dec. 9—The Gophers had to fight for nearly every shot in their Big Ten opener against Michigan State on Wednesday at Williams Arena. And one of their best looks of the first half ended up in the Barnyard student section.

A give-and-go from EJ Stephens to Eric Curry and back to Stephens was going to end in a smooth finger roll before Spartans big man Gabe Brown fiercely swatted it into the stands.

Welcome to Big Ten play.

The U struggled to find its offense early and Michigan State was efficient with its looks, and it led to Minnesota's undefeated start coming to a sudden stop in a 75-67 loss to the 19th-ranked Spartans.

"They got some dudes," Gophers coach Ben Johnson said about the play that ended in the block. "They've been through it. Again, you look at the schedule they've played. They've been tested, and these are guys that have been in the system."

Johnson lost his first Big Ten game as coach, and Minnesota fell to 7-1, 0-1 in Big Ten play; it came against the league's most experienced coach, Tom Izzo, now in his 27th season at Michigan State. The Spartans are 7-2, with losses to current top-10 teams Baylor and Kansas, and are 1-0 in league play.

Izzo started off his news conference with praise for Johnson. "I thought he has done a hell of a job," he said. "I'm happy to say for the Big Ten and for Minnesota that I think you've got the right guy here. ... There is no quit in his team. We had them down and came back. They have been playing so good."

Trailing by 19 points with nine minutes left, Minnesota strung together stops on defense and made baskets on the other end for a 14-4 run to cut MSU's lead to 64-55 with four minutes to go. They also cut it to 73-67 under a minute left.

Gophers leading scorer Jamison Battle and Payton Willis, the co-Big Ten player of the week, combined to shoot 3 for 14 in the first half as the U trailed 37-24. Battle had 14 second-half points to help fuel the comeback, and he finished with 17. Willis never got going and ended with nine points.

As the Gophers were staking a second-half comeback, Luke Loewe, a transfer from William & Mary, was welcomed to the Big Ten on a drive to the basket. Loewe received contact from Julius Marble II, while Max Christie blocked Loewe's shot, and the U guard broke his fall with his face.

The Gophers had five transfers playing in their first Big Ten game. "Not many guys on our team have been in this position, where they have been called on to deliver," Johnson said. "Luke Loewe has never been in a position where he's played in front of this many people and he's been asked to produce and deliver against a Top 25 team. EJ has never been in a position like that. Eric Curry has, and Eric Curry has his career-high. With us, it's a growth process."

Curry was often the surprise go-to guy and finished with a career-high 18.

Minnesota led the nation in 3-point defense going into Wednesday's game, holding opponents to 23 percent from behind the arc. Michigan State bucked that trend, shooting 48 percent (10 for 21) from deep.

"I think this was the first time early in spots in the first half that our defense was OK," Johnson said. "It wasn't like it has been. I think that offensively it kind of impacted it, and we've just got to — we can't have those breakdowns. You can't strictly rely on making shots to be the constant with your defense. I think we fell into that for the first time in a while."

The Spartans came in with the 23rd-best field-goal defense in the nation, and they held Minnesota to very few comfortable looks. The U shot 30 percent (10 for 33) from the field and 18 percent from deep (2 for 11) in the first half.

Curry had 10 points in the first half. He went 5 for 10 from the field in the first half; the rest of his team went 5 for 23.

Minnesota was much better in the second half, shooting 49 percent (17 for 35), but the Spartans showed the U that Big Ten play is different.

"I just try to tell the guys, you got to come out with the energy from the jump, especially in this league," said Curry. "You can't get smacked in the mouth and expect to play from behind."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting