Michigan State coach Tom Izzo knows when a game is there for the taking, and this was one of those games.
The Spartans led Minnesota by five points with less than 8:30 to play and they were throwing their weight around at Williams Arena once again. Then the Golden Gophers did something they rarely do against Michigan State — they pushed back.
Andre Hollins had 22 points and six assists and Rodney Williams added 15 points and six rebounds to lift No. 9 Minnesota to a 76-63 victory over No. 18 Michigan State on Monday.
Trevor Mbakwe had 11 points and 12 rebounds and the Gophers (13-1, 1-0 Big Ten) shot 56.6 percent to open conference play with an emphatic victory over a team that has owned them for years. This time Minnesota slammed the door with an 18-2 run over the final seven minutes in front of a euphoric, and surprised, home crowd.
"You'd like to steal one when you have a chance, but they earned the win," Izzo said. "They played better."
Keith Appling had 15 points and five assists and Gary Harris scored 12 for the Spartans (11-3, 0-1), who had beaten Minnesota 13 of the last 15 times the two teams had met. The Spartans trailed by 12 points in the first half to a charged-up Gophers team that cracked the top 10 for the first time since a run to the Final Four in 1996-97.
But it takes more than a little crowd noise to shake the Spartans. Even though Draymond Green is playing in Golden State this year, Izzo still returned four of his top six scorers from a team that won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles last year, and they responded to the push.
Appling scored six points during an 11-0 run early in the second half that gave Michigan State a 55-51 lead, and a Gophers team that had shown more toughness and grit in the first 20 minutes than they had in the last four years started to crack.
The offense bogged down and the defense weakened, with Appling's layup capping a 15-3 run that gave them a 59-54 lead with 9:23 to go.
"I'm frustrated," Appling said. "I feel like we had the game in our hands, but it kind of slipped way towards the end."
The Gophers flinched, but they didn't falter. They were the aggressors from there on out, getting the Spartans in foul trouble with they're relentless attacking style.
Mbakwe threw down a dunk on a pretty feed from Joe Coleman, who then got a bucket on a goaltending violation by Adreian Payne. Hollins finally knocked down a jumper for Minnesota's first bucket in more than five and a half minutes and Hollins hit two free throws for a 64-61 lead with 5:33 to play. He then hit a pretty fall-away jumper from the baseline and the Gophers were off and running.
Derrick Nix scored 10 points and Travis Trice added nine off the bench for Michigan State.
"This is a game where you can come in here and get a good win against a quality team on the road, and it helps you out for later on down the road," Trice said. "We lost one, but it's a long season. We got to bounce back."
Austin Hollins scored 12 points and the Gophers beat them in the regular season for the first time since 2006.
"We knew our history with Michigan State ... We have leads and they come out and pull away in the last three minutes," Mbakwe said. "But we wanted to take care of them and we wanted to hit them back and take care of homecourt."
It was a measuring stick game for the Gophers. Izzo always found a way to prevail over them thanks to a bigger, more physical and mentally tougher squad that was able to push the Gophers around.
This year, the Gophers brought their deepest and burliest team of the Tubby era into the Barn determined to prove that they're not the softies that succumbed to the rigorous Big Ten schedule in recent seasons. They went 12-24 in Big Ten play over the last two seasons and have only posted two winning records in the conference since Bobby Jackson led them to the Final Four.
But Mbakwe was back in the starting lineup after missing last year with a torn ACL in his right knee, Andre Hollins had emerged as a top-flight playmaker on the perimeter and Williams was finally starting to harness his athleticism. The Gophers needed this one to set the right tone for contending in a conference that boasts six teams in the top 20 and four in the top nine.
"We're a totally different team this year," Williams said.