MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team’s win streak to start the season is over at seven.
In the first Big Ten game as a head coach for Ben Johnson, and for five of his seven players that got minutes Wednesday night, the Gophers lost to No. 19-ranked Michigan State 75-67 in the conference opener for both teams at Williams Arena. It’s Minnesota’s first loss of the season after a 7-0 start.
Johnson was hired on March 22, and had many heads around college basketball turned after the Gophers got two true road wins at Pittsburgh and at Mississippi State for the first time since 2017. The Big Ten opener was a learning experience for a roster that, besides Eric Curry and Payton Willis, hadn’t played in a Power Five conference before.
The Spartans are a top-20 team, and are expected to be contenders in the Big Ten.
"They showed our guys, we want to get to that level, what it takes to get there. You never want to lose but when you do, it’s like what can you learn from it? What can you build on as a team? Use it as a lesson, and that’s what we’ll try to do," Johnson said after the game.
Athletic Director Mark Coyle took a gamble on Johnson back in March, hiring a Minnesota native who had never been a college head coach. Spartans' head coach Tom Izzo, a future hall-of-famer, had nothing but compliments for Johnson after the game.
"I thought he’s done a hell of a job. I’m happy to say for the Big Ten and for Minnesota, I think you’ve got the right guy here. He’s going to do a hell of a job," Izzo said. "I know what it’s like to be a first year head coach, and to do that in the Big Ten is not easy."
On the court, Michigan State's lockdown defense had Minnesota’s offense struggling early, as the Gophers started just 3-of-15 from the field and 0-for-6 from three-point range. The Gophers finished 30 percent from the field in the first half, and just 2-of-11 from the perimeter.
Jamison Battle’s first points of the game cut an early deficit to 17-15. The Spartans answered with a 13-4 run, and led 37-24 at the half. The Gophers trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half before going on a 14-4 run to get within 64-55. Luke Loewe hit a 3-pointer with 31.7 seconds to play to get Minnesota as close at 73-67.
The Gophers kept battling, with the odds against them. They lack depth with just six players playing at least 24 minutes. The Spartans had 10 players see the floor, eight played at least 16 minutes. When they could've folded, Minnesota kept it close late.
"I think it shows the grit of this team. It’s tough, but I think we proved tonight we’re not going to back down from anyone. We fought, and I think that’s what you’re going to get from this team," Battle said. "We’re not going to back down from anybody."
Curry led the Gophers with a career-high 18 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and had five rebounds. He said Izzo talked to him after the game, and complimented him for sticking out a career marred with injuries. He’s healthy, and it showed against the Spartans.
"It’s amazing. He talked to me after the game, it’s a real honor to here that from him. It’s a real honor to be here and just keep going," Curry said.
After a slow start offensively, Battle finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, shooting 5-of-14 from the field. Willis finished with nine points, shooting 3-of-13 from the field. For the game, Minnesota shot 40 percent from the field for the game, and just 6-of-23 from the perimeter with Spartans’ defenders hounding them much of the night.
The Gophers had a tough time with the trio of Malik Hall, Tyson Walker and Gabe Brown. Each scored 15 points for the Spartans, who had four players in double figures. Michigan State also shot 10-of-21 from the perimeter.
With the game winding down and the Gophers headed to their first loss of the season, the fans remaining at Williams Arena stood and applauded the team’s effort. They didn't stop battling when it looked like the Spartans might run away with it.
"I really believe our fans understand good basketball. I think when our guys give effort and play the right way or play good basketball, people appreciate that, especially our fan base," Johnson said. "That’s just something we always try to do. We’re going to play hard for all 40 minutes, and we’re going to try and fight and compete, play the right way and play good basketball. That’s why we’ve got some of the best fans in the country, they understand that. That’s what makes this place special."
Life doesn’t get any easier for Minnesota in the immediate future. The Gophers head to Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines (6-3, 1-0) opened Big Ten play with a 102-67 win at Nebraska.