MINNEAPOLIS - Michigan State capped one of its worst performances of the year with one of its most efficient, guttiest finishes in scoring a 66-61 comeback victory over Minnesota.
Outsmarted, outhustled and even outrebounded for most of the game, No. 6 ranked Michigan State snapped back to retain its 1-game lead over Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten standings.
With three conference games remaining, Michigan State is two victories away from clinching Tom Izzo's seventh Big Ten championship.
"When you're trying to be in a championship run, you've got to steal a game somewhere," said Izzo. "To bounce back and do the job that we did late in that game speaks to the character of this team. Sooner or later you've got to win a close game, and that's what we did.
"It's a character win when we were playing our worst yet we bounced back, so that says something about us."
Keith Appling and Brandon Wood both scored 13 points to fuel Michigan State, helping the Spartans win their sixth straight game.
"Wood played a little harder," Izzo said. "He got a couple of steals. Those steals were big. He just made some plays."
One of which was a savvy runner in the lane at the first-half buzzer to give MSU a 31-30 lead at the break.
With 3:03 left, Wood scored with a clever 3-footer in the lane off a curl cut to cut the lead to 58-54.
Wood turned a steal into a dunk to cut the lead to 54-52.
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 58-58 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."
"Draymond Green made some plays early and then we started going away from him there for a while," Izzo said. "We just didn't do the things we have been doing very well. That game could have slipped away but we went to Draymond late and we went to Keith late, both of our key players and both of them answered the bell, one from the free throw line and one from the block."
Wood was 6-of-10 from the field.
"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.
Ramping Up The Defense
After the Gophers went up 48-39, the Spartans only allowed 2 field goals over the final 10:25.
MSU went 3-for-3 from the field and 8-of-8 from the foul line during a 14-3 run to win the game.
After playing a steady game at point guard for most of the night, Welch started succumbing to the Spartans' pressure.
Joe Coleman was called for a double dribble, thanks to being closed off by MSU's Brandan Kearney, who was in the game for half a minute on a wise defense-for-offense substitution by Izzo.
"In the first half it our defense porous, not very good," Izzo said. "But in the second half we did some better things and found a way."
After Green's game-tying score, Minnesota was turned away when Green came away with a steal.
MSU faltered with :32 seconds remaining when a long possession looked doomed, but then the Gophers bailed out Appling with :03 seconds left on the shot clock with a block foul 25 feet from the basket on a ball screen. Appling made both free throws to put MSU up 60-58.
Then 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.
"In most of the effort-related things, we got beat on," Izzo said. "We got beat on cuts. We got beat in rebounding. We took way too many threes. The only thing we did a good job on is not turning the ball over. We didn't turn it over much. That probably won us the game. We got some big steals; that was big."
MSU, the nation's No. 2-ranked team in rebounding margin, was beaten on the boards 31-22.
MSU missed 31 shots but collected only seven offensive rebounds.
MSU was 5-of-20 from 3-point range, including nine misses against Minnesota's zone defense in the first half. MSU went inside when seeing the zone in the second half and the Gophers didn't deploy it nearly as much.
"There were so many parts of that game that we did not do well, but I remember winning the National Championship in a year when we had to have Cleaves go the length of the court up here to win at the buzzer," Izzo said. "It's still a win."
Michigan State went more than 5 minutes without scoring until an Appling pull-up jumper broke a Gopher run and cut it to 42-36.
Then 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.
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.
"We didn't play very well and we didn't play very smart," Izzo said.
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."