DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Fueled by a better-late-than-never breakout game by Alvin Ellis III, Michigan State snapped into form after halftime of the Big Ten opener.
Still-developing Minnesota was left with a stinging defeat.
Ellis made two free throws with 10.6 seconds left in overtime to finish with a career-high 20 points and give Michigan State the lead, capping a 75-74 comeback victory by the Spartans over Minnesota on Tuesday after the Gophers led by 13 points at the break.
“These young guys, they haven’t been through this Big Ten conference play. We know it’s tough, and I’ve been through it, so we needed a lot of leadership,” said Ellis, who initially signed with Minnesota out of De La Salle High School in Chicago four years ago but was granted his release when coach Tubby Smith was fired.
The senior backup tripled his season average with 36 minutes. He went 3 for 7 from 3-point range and added six rebounds, production the Gophers players acknowledged caught them off guard. In and out of Tom Izzo’s favor over the years, Ellis responded well to a recent heart-to-heart talk with the hard-driving head coach.
“He’s got what we lack. He’s got some toughness. So I’m happy for him. I’m actually proud of him. He took a challenge. He responded,” Izzo said.
Michigan State, the worst foul-shooting team in the Big Ten, was 8 for 20 from the line until Ellis stepped up with two swishes following a non-shooting foul by Nate Mason. Nick Ward had 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans (9-5, 1-0), who have been trying to survive without standout freshman Miles Bridges.
Mason, who led the Gophers with 18 points, misfired on his off-balance jumper from the lane at the buzzer that would’ve won the game. Jordan Murphy had 12 points and a career-high 21 rebounds, but Minnesota (12-2, 0-1) lost its fourth straight conference opener under coach Richard Pitino.
“There’s going to be plenty more close games, and hopefully we can be on the other side of that,” Pitino said.
Bakary Konate’s putback with 1:28 left gave the Gophers a 72-71 lead, but Eron Harris answered with a drive on the other end. Dupree McBrayer, who had 14 points, put Minnesota ahead again with a pair of free throws with 33.8 seconds left.
The Gophers still led by double digits around the midpoint of the second half, but Nairn, not at full strength because of foot trouble, coolly engineered the Spartans surge with Ellis and Ward as his wing men.
Mason plowed through a pick for a foul that sent Ward to the line with 28.3 seconds left in regulation, and he missed his free throw. But Amir Coffey’s attempt at a winner from the paint was off the mark for the Gophers. Coffey had 17 points on 5-for-15 shooting in his first Big Ten game.
“We just made too many mistakes down the stretch. We just didn’t make the big plays, the winning plays,” Murphy said.
Michigan State has been limping along this month, with the absence of Bridges to a severely sprained ankle looming large and inarguably factoring in some unimpressive recent performances on their home court including a loss to Northeastern and a four-point victory over Oral Roberts .
So the Gophers were favored by 6½ points on the latest betting line with a record entering Big Ten play matched only by Maryland, a remarkable shift in a series that Michigan State has dominated with 21 wins in the last 26 meetings.
Michigan State: Ward’s emergence with fellow post players Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter recovering from knee injuries has been a bright spot for the Spartans. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound native, the lowest-profile member of this freshman class, has posted 22-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in three of six games this month.
The only problem is at the foul line, where Ward went 4 for 13.
“I’ll go back to East Lansing, probably tonight, shoot 100 free throws,” Ward said.
Minnesota: Murphy, whose freshman performance was about the only bright spot for the Gophers during their 8-23 finish last season, capably handled the load inside with Konate while Reggie Lynch was stuck on the bench. Lynch fouled out with only three points and three rebounds in 11 minutes, though, and his shot-blocking presence was missed in the attempt to deny Ward the basket.
“You could see the effect that Reggie has on the game,” Murphy said.
Michigan State: The Spartans host Northwestern on Friday.
Minnesota: The Gophers play at No. 15 Purdue on Sunday.
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