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Neal: Recent big wins signal a new era for Gophers basketball

The pregame estimate was that more than 8,000 fans would enter Williams Arena on Tuesday to see if the revival is real. Yes, most of the lower-level seats were full for their test against Michigan State. And folks brought energy.

The men's basketball meeting between the Gophers and Spartans even attracted former Michigan State student-athlete Kirk Cousins. He became a target of Goldy, who handed him a Gophers jersey during a break in action. Sorry Gopher Nation, Kirk — who went to high school in Holland, Mich. — did not slip on the jersey.

We should not take that as a sign that his days with the Vikings are numbered.

There's a better chance the days of the Big Ten having the Gophers' number on a nightly basis are slowly coming to an end.

By the end of the evening, fans were on their feet, howling.

"That was a different energy [Tuesday] from the very start and I can't thank them enough," Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. "It impacts winning so much more than I think they even realize."

They roared because they watched the Gophers problem-solve. They saw the Gophers defense stiffen when their offense was stagnant during the end of the first half and start of the second. They saw freshman guard Cam Christie step up when no one else could. They watched a decisive 10-0 run in the second half when it appeared that the Spartans would pull away.

Final score: Gophers 59, Michigan State 56. It's one of their significant wins of the season not just because they could be part of March Madness for the first time since 2019. But coming off an overtime victory against Northwestern on Saturday, they now have consecutive games in which they wore their resolve like a shield. Even if the Big Ten is a little down this season, that's still impressive.

Johnson, in his third season in charge of the program, looks to have gotten this car out of the ditch.

This was a game the Gophers couldn't hang around in a year ago. Heck, even earlier this season. On Nov. 16, the Gophers blew a 20-point lead to Missouri at the Barn, and it looked like nothing was learned from previous seasons. But as the Gophers worked their way through the schedule, there was tangible proof of improvement.

They discovered a capable point guard in Elijah Hawkins. Check that. They have one of the best distributors in the nation in Hawkins, who entered Tuesday leading the nation with an average of 7.8 assists a game. He's a blur at times as he brings the ball up the court, allowing Johnson to play with the tempo he was unable to play at the two previous seasons. Hawkins can run the offense, keep his teammates happy and his coach satisfied. He even has NCAA tournament experience, having led Howard there last season — and it was the Bison's first trip there in 31 years.

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But Hawkins had one assist at halftime. The Gophers were outscored 19-7 to finish up the half and went into halftime trailing 32-27. Dawson Garcia wasn't getting the ball in places where he could score. Pharrel Payne fell into foul trouble and spent plenty of time on the bench, and the Gophers are a different team when he's not on the court.

With 13 minutes left to play, Michigan State led 45-36. But Minnesota brought their fans back into the game with a 10-0 run during which Christie hit a three-pointer and popped a turnaround jumper.

Christie can shoot. Parker Fox is a great athlete and an energy guy. There are some good pieces in place here.

"I mean let's be honest about it, Minnesota has been on the bottom for a few years now. And [Johnson] has taken that team and made it more competitive [than] last year," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said leading into the game. "But now, they're damn good. I mean, they're good enough to be an NCAA tournament team. They're good enough to compete in the Big Ten every night."

Like on Tuesday against a Michigan State team that routinely gains momentum as a season progresses.

This is what hope looks like. This is what progress is. The work Johnson has put into the program is starting to show. Instead of the Spartans aging well, it's the Gophers playing their best basketball as the games grow in importance.