In the span of nine short minutes on Monday afternoon, Minnesota made believers out of anyone who doubted its status as one of the Big Ten's elite teams this season.
When Michigan State opened up a five-point lead at Minnesota with 9:24 remaining in the second half, the Gophers appeared to be in jeopardy of starting Big Ten play with a damaging home loss. Instead they regrouped and refocused, turning up the defensive intensity and unleashing a devastating 22-4 game-ending run to blow away the Spartans and seal an impressive 76-63 win.
Michigan State, which had dominated Minnesota during the Tubby Smith era, couldn't jumpstart its offense after Branden Dawson missed an ill-advised jumper that could have increased the lead to seven and the Gophers turned it into a dunk at the other end. In the final nine minutes, the Spartans missed 13 of 15 shots and committed five turnovers, short-circuiting their bid for a big road win.
Andre Hollins, Minnesota's emerging backcourt star, added to an already-fine season by delivering 22 points on only 10 shots and dishing out six assists. Trevor Mbakwe continued to show signs of regaining his explosiveness with 11 points and 12 rebounds and Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins chipped in 15 and 12 points, respectively.
The victory was important psychologically for Minnesota because of the program's history of following strong non-conference performances by collapsing in Big Ten play.
Last season, Minnesota started 12-1 but dropped its first four Big Ten games en route to a 6-12 league record and an NIT berth. The year before, the Gophers spoiled an 11-1 start by dropping three of their first four league games en route to another 6-12 finish. Tubby Smith's job appeared to be in jeopardy this season if he couldn't reverse that trend and get his deepest Minnesota team into the NCAA tournament.
It would be shocking to see that same fate befall the Gophers this season, even in a Big Ten that is as strong as it has ever been and features six current AP Top 25 teams.
Minnesota now adds a victory over Michigan State to a resume that includes wins over Memphis, Florida State and Stanford and a lone loss to Duke. The Gophers feature a defense holding opponents to under 60 points per game and a balanced offense aided by an athletic frontline that dominates the offensive glass.
To contend with Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State for the Big Ten title, Minnesota will have to prove it can win away from home too. Nonetheless, Monday's New Year's Eve win was a sign the first few months of 2013 could be memorable for the Gophers.
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