This year’s Gophers are a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
No. 9 Minnesota outlasted No. 18 Michigan State in the conference season opener 76-63 behind Andre Hollins’ game-highs in points (22) and assists (6).
Tubby Smith’s squad trailed 61-58 with 7:15 left in the second half when a dunk by Trevor Mbakwe sparked an 18-2 run to end the game.
“It’s not all physical,” Smith said. “I thought today we played not only with our heart [and] toughness, but we played with our head down the stretch.”
In a game with only two lead changes, Michigan State took a five-point lead with with 9:22 left after a 15-3 run.
“[In] years past we might have started arguing some or panicking," senior Rodney Williams said, "and the game most likely would’ve gone the other way."
After turning the ball over 16 times in the first 28 minutes, the Gophers flipped a switch and managed zero turnovers in the last 11 minutes. They forced five Spartans turnovers in the same stretch.
“We just didn’t panic,” Hollins said. “We knew this would be a close game.”
Both teams shot poorly from the charity stripe -- 59 percent for Minnesota, 20 percent for the Spartans -- but the Gophers finished 4-for-5 in the closing minutes.
“We made our free throws when they counted, made the big stops when we needed,” Smith said.
Steals by Williams, Mbakwe and Coleman in the final minutes created fast-break opportunities for the Gophers as they flourished outside of their halfcourt set.
Williams finished with 15 points -- four shy of 1,000 on his career -- six rebounds and three steals in 33 minutes.
Smith’s bench didn’t play much, as every Gophers starter except for Mbakwe (28 minutes) notched at least 30 minutes.
Mbakwe had a team-high 12 rebounds and 11 points as he competed for the first time this season without a brace on his right knee.
The sixth-year senior said he’s fully recovered from his surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and doesn’t want “people thinking about it anymore.”
“Anytime you have Trevor out there at full health, it’s going to be trouble for the other team,” Williams said.
Minnesota hadn’t beaten Michigan State since March 12, 2010, in the Big Ten tournament and not since 2006 in the regular season.
“We can’t sit on this win for too long," junior Austin Hollins said. "It’s just the first one in a long journey."
The Gophers (13-1) play Northwestern (9-4) next on Jan. 6.
- Williams Arena has had back-to-back announced sellouts of 14,625.
- After not playing against Lafayette, center Elliott Eliason came off the bench for 10 minutes, notching six rebounds and a block.
- Minnesota shot 57 percent from the field behind Andre Hollins' 7-for-10 shooting.