MINNEAPOLIS – Outsmarted, outhustled and even outrebounded for most of the game, Michigan State snapped back to stun Minnesota.
But in between laments about his team's performance, Spartans coach Tom Izzo offered his due praise. Sometimes, the most important wins aren't pretty at all.
Keith Appling and Brandon Wood both scored 13 points to key No. 6 Michigan State's 66-61 victory over Minnesota on Wednesday night, helping the first-place Spartans win their sixth straight game and keep their one-game lead in the Big Ten.
"When you're trying to be in a championship run, you've got to steal a game somewhere," said Izzo, who has Michigan State in position for a seventh conference title in his 17th season at the school with three games to go.
Draymond Green had 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals for the Spartans (23-5, 12-3), who maintained their perfect February record despite the flawed showing. Green's only basket of the second half was a pump-fake layup that rolled on the rim and in to tie the game at 58 with 1:40 left. He was 4 for 6 from 3-point range before halftime and 1 for 8 from the field in the second half.
"Any time you can get a road win, no matter how ugly it is, it means a lot," Green said. "Especially how the race is now. We really needed this win."
Second-place Ohio State and Michigan won their games on Tuesday.
"It wasn't looking too good, but we stayed together and executed what we're supposed to do, and it worked out," Wood said.
Austin Hollins scored 17 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range for the Gophers (17-11, 5-10), who led for more than 18 minutes of the second half until a flurry of late turnovers — 12 of their 15 came after halftime. Julian Welch had four turnovers to offset 10 points and eight assists.
The Gophers beat Michigan State 33-27 on the boards and made 14 of their 15 free throws, but they still couldn't pull out a must-win game for their dying NCAA tournament hopes.
Appling made six free throws over the final 32 seconds to seal the win and send the stunned Gophers to their 20th defeat in their last 26 Big Ten games. The Spartans haven't lost at Williams Arena in six years.
"They've got a lot of pride. They play with a lot of toughness. They play with a lot of confidence," said coach Tubby Smith, who fell to 1-11 against Michigan State in five seasons at Minnesota.
After playing a steady game at point guard for most of the night, Welch started succumbing to the Spartans' pressure. Wood turned a steal into a dunk to cut the lead to 54-52 and had consecutive layups a little later off turnovers to bring Michigan State within 58-56. Joe Coleman was called for a double dribble. Then Green maneuvered his way inside for the tying score.
Hollins lost control of his dribble on the other end, and Appling made the first two of his clinching free throws. Out of a timeout, the Gophers had the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead back, but Hollins airballed a 3-pointer with 19 seconds remaining. He said afterward he might have rushed the shot.
"We've got to have guys at the end of the game we can go to and get stuff done, and we just can't seem to find that person," Smith said.
The Gophers, facing a clear shortfall in both athleticism and size underneath with star Trevor Mbakwe out for the season with a knee injury, played with confidence around the basket that they needed on the perimeter at the end of the game. Deep reserve Andre Ingram gave them some big rebounds and drew a charge on Green in the second half. Ralph Sampson III had his soft hook shot in sync. Green, the conference's leading rebounder, had only two at halftime.
Hollins hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions for the Gophers out of the gate after halftime. For the second one, Welch led a fast break and whipped a two-handed pass across the lane to the right wing. Hollins faked a defender in the air, stepped back and swished the wide-open shot for a 36-32 lead.
Michigan State went more than 5 minutes without scoring until Appling's pull-up jumper. He turned a steal on the other end into a breakaway dunk, but hanging on the rim too long got him with a technical foul to the delight of the Minnesota students. They chanted, "You can't do that!"
The Gophers led 48-39, their biggest margin of the game, after consecutive baskets inside by Rodney Williams and were still up 54-47 after three free throws by Andre Hollins, who tempted Appling to foul him on a frantic beat-the-shot-clock attempt from behind the arc.
But Wood's quick hands and quicker feet on those fast breaks got the Spartans right back within striking distance, setting up the dramatic finish. The Gophers had seven turnovers in the final 7 minutes.
"Boy, we sure did play undisciplined and sloppy," Izzo said, adding: "I feel very fortunate to win it, and I'm proud that we found a way to win a game that we didn't deserve to."