MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Drew Neitzel’s senior season wasn’t exactly going as planned when his Spartans came to Williams Arena on Sunday.
The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year wasn’t making shots like he is used to doing, a trend that continued into the first half against Minnesota.
Then, suddenly, it all came back.
Neitzel made five 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes to lead No. 11 Michigan State to a 78-73 victory over Minnesota.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Neitzel said. “That’s my role on this team: to make big shots, especially in the second half, and I was fortunate enough to do that tonight.”
Neitzel finished with 19 points and reserve Kalin Lucas added 12 points for the Spartans (16-2, 4-1), who shook off 18 turnovers to win their second in a row following a woeful 36-point effort at Iowa last week.
“He had an unbelievable game,” Lucas said of Neitzel. “Some games he’s been struggling with his shot. Today he showed why he keeps shooting it.”
Lawrence McKenzie had 20 points for the Gophers (12-5, 2-3), who are still looking for their first quality win under new coach Tubby Smith.
The Gophers have now lost two straight to fall below .500 in the conference. They beat up on the likes of North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Nicholls State and Army in nonconference play but have found the going much tougher in the rugged Big Ten.
They started last week hoping to make some noise with home games against No. 9 Indiana and Michigan State, but came away deflated after being in both games and losing them at the end.
“We look like $1 million one time and nothing the next,” Smith said. “It’s like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.”
Neitzel was having his share of difficulties in the conference as well until Sunday.
Starting with the conference opener against the Gophers in East Lansing back on Jan. 5, Neitzel certainly wasn’t playing like the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year.
He was just 2-for-11 with four points in that game and was 13-for-43 (30 percent) from the field in the Spartans’ first four conference games.
Those struggles carried over to the first half against the Gophers. Neitzel looked a little timid at the start. He was 1-for-4—including a missed layup in transition—in the first 20 minutes with two turnovers and zero assists, something uncharacteristic for a player who entered the game leading the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s been struggling,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “The second half was the first time he shot like you saw last year in probably 10 games. Hopefully this will be a start for him because we really need him.”
With his Spartans clinging to a one-point lead early in the second half, things finally started clicking for Neitzel.
He hit a 3-pointer from the left wing and added four more in the next 12 minutes as Michigan State started pulling away.
They came from all over the court in all sorts of ways—falling down in the corner, spotted up at the top of the key, stepping into one in transition—and the confidence came right along with it.
The Spartans certainly needed it.
Raymar Morgan, their leading scorer at 16.9 points per game, was nearly silent. He scored just nine points and missed seven free throws after scoring 31 in his first game against the Gophers.
With freshman point guard Al Nolen on the bench because of a leg injury, the Gophers had a tough time running their offense and getting good looks at the basket. Lawrence Westbrook filled in as the primary ball handler in the second group, and he committed five turnovers in the first half.
The Gophers sorely missed Nolen’s perimeter defense and his reliability on offense, and Smith called his absence a “major problem.”
“We definitely, definitely could have used him today,” McKenzie said.