EAST LANSING – Nothing was easy for basketball in the state of Michigan. Minnesota took care of that in its second meeting of the season.
Marcus Bingham Jr. and Tyson Walker were relegated to the bench midway through the second half. The Gophers continued to counterpunch when the ninth-ranked Spartans seemed to be gaining momentum.
That left the match in the hands of AJ Hoggard, Joey Hauser and Malik Hall. And they delivered.
Hoggard’s drive and saucer to Hauser with 0.1 left on the clock yielded a 71-69 breakaway against the Gophers on Wednesday night and the Spartans’ ninth straight win in their first game in a week.
And MSU players on the bench stormed the field to storm Hoggard and Hauser after the horn sounded seconds later.
“That was one of those weird special moments in a game where you really didn’t play that well. And yet you won,” said MSU coach Tom Izzo. “And yet they acted as if we had just won the national championship. And it was not the game, I think, but the situation. And that was pretty cool.”
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Max Christie scored 16 points with five rebounds and four assists to lead MSU (14-2, 5-0). Gabe Brown added 13 points and Walker had 10.
But when it came to grabbing time on the stretch, it was the unannounced trio of Hoggard, Hall and Hauser who took control.
Hall scored all of his seven points after checking in for the first time in the second half with 16:13 left. Bingham went to the bench for good at 10:14 to play, with Hall and Houser taking over in the paint.
Hoggard had five points and three assists after halftime, playing the last 10:43 after Walker went off the bench. It’s unclear why neither Bingham nor Walker came back, but Walker left the game early and had suffered a hard fall earlier in the game, bruising his ankle.
And Hauser, who had been much reviled for most of the past two years, made all three of his shots in the second half — no bigger than a high-rising finger roll in traffic after Hoggard’s dish through the trees. He finished with eight points on 4-for-5 shooting with five rebounds.
“The locker room – they were happy for Joey, and that’s pretty cool… I was happy for him too,” Izzo said. “But if players are happy for a player, that’s pretty special.”
Eric Curry had 19 points and seven rebounds to lead Minnesota (10-4, 1-4), which has lost three in a row. EJ Stephens added 18 points, Jamison Battle added 13 points and seven boards, and Payton Willis had 15 points and five rebounds. The Gophers came in on Wednesday at 349th out of 350 teams in offensive rebounds per game and 331st in rebound margin, but gave Tom Izzo’s board-minded team everything it can handle on the glass. Minnesota finished with a 12-6 lead in offensive rebounds and a 17-8 lead in second chance points.
“The fight that I thought our guys needed to get to that point, there were a few times in that game that they could have easily folded,” said Minnesota coach Ben Johnson. “This is a tough place to play. … They just kept coming and they gave us a chance, and that’s all you can ask of us.”
MSU seemed to be on its way to another professional performance in the first half. Then it went unraveled for the last 5 minutes.
Bingham, Walker and Christie all started strong as the Spartans dictated the pace and tone early on. Those three combined accounted for 16 of the Spartans’ first 18 points, with Christie’s rebound and putback followed by a three-pointer in the transition leading to a 14-3 point in the middle of the half. A pair of brown free throws put MSU at 27-17 with 5:09 left.
But Minnesota broke down, taking advantage of the Spartans’ defensive failures on the glass. The Gophers got six of their 11 second chance points in the last 4:41, with Charlie Daniels’ rebound and layup leading to a 14-7 run to end the half.
Izzo went to his bench with 6.6 seconds left before the break to use Davis Smith in a foul situation. But the sophomore was late on the first, who was called to Brown and took the second with 2.6 taps to go. He went to the bench and Willis hit a three-pointer on the buzzer to narrow the Spartans’ lead to 34-31 at halftime.
The Gophers made six of their last eight shots in the half after opening the half 7-for-20, while MSU went the final 2:38 without a field goal.
Stephens had 10 points in the first half and hit the first bucket from halftime to pull Minnesota within two points. And it stayed that way for most of the first 10 minutes, with the Spartans showing signs of life with four points possession and then five straight points from Walker, only for the Gophers to find a quick answer both times.
Minnesota took the lead for the first time since 6:45 AM when Battle cleared a corner jumper and Curry hit a free throw to leave MSU behind, 52-51. But the Spartans countered with a 6-1 sprint, including a three-pointer from Hall, who had 15 points in their December 8 75-67 win in Minneapolis, but was goalless until that basket on Wednesday.
Hall added with two jumpers and Christie added another to reduce the Spartans’ lead to six with six minutes left. But Minnesota wouldn’t leave until the last buzzer sounded.
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Learn more about the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.