Big Ten Tournament, Quarterfinals: Allen, Gray lead Michigan State past Minnesota, into semis
Come tournament time, it's usually true that upset-minded underdogs need unknown players to emerge from the shadows in order to topple highly-rated titans. But in the first quarterfinal of the Big Ten Tournament, the Michigan State Spartans turned logic on its head. The No. 1 seed received unlikely contributions on Friday in Indianapolis to turn back an upstart in search of a shocker.
Chris Allen threw down 17 points, and Marquise Gray provided 11 points and 6 rebounds, to power Tom Izzo's team past eighth-seeded Minnesota, 64-56, in Conseco Fieldhouse. On a day when MSU's prime performers were largely contained, the boys from East Lansing needed unfamiliar faces to flourish against Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers.
How unusual were these performances by Allen and Gray? Allen, for his part, hadn't scored in double figures since a Feb. 7 win against Indiana. The bearer of only five double-figure scoring games throughout the Big Ten regular season, Allen decided to throw a coming-out party in a neutral-site showdown. On the strength of 5-of-11 field goal shooting, including two 3-pointers, Allen provided scoring punch on the perimeter and compensated for a meager 2-point performance by fellow guard Durrell Summers.
Gray's effort proved to be equally surprising--and valuable--for Sparty. Entering this encounter, the brawny senior forward averaged just 3 points and 3 boards a game. With this awesome 11-and-6 showing, however, Gray provided the kind of equation-changing performance that Minnesota simply couldn't have counted on in their pregame scouting reports. The Gophers held down the likes of Delvon Roe and Raymar Morgan on the interior, but when Marquise maxed out for Michigan State, Tubby's troops learned that life's Gray areas can be hard to accept.
The Allen-Gray combo was so essential in this contest because, all other things being equal, Minnesota--in its third game against the Spartans--finally competed at a respectable level. In the previous two tilts between these conference foes, Sparty spanked the Gophers by attaining a plus-19 rebounding margin in both Minneapolis and East Lansing. This afternoon, Michigan State outrebounded Minnesota by a modest margin of eight (34-26), and the Gophers won their fair share of 50-50 balls in open-court scramble situations. Minnesota earned 27 free throw attempts, but missed 14 of them, leaving a ton of points at the line. Considering that the Spartans held a 58-53 lead with 1:05 left in regulation, before free throws padded the final spread on the scoreboard, the Gophers legitimately lost a chance for victory when they couldn't take charge at the charity stripe.
The other positive element of Minnesota's performance is that the Gophers managed to get the ball to the rim against MSU with appreciable consistency. Al Nolen, Damian Johnson and Devron Bostick were aggressive in attacking the basket, a main reason why the Gophers got to the foul line and remained competitive against the Big Ten champions. The only problem for the U of M was a simple but substantial one: When they got to the tin, the gold-shirted Gophers couldn't finish plays. Michigan State's active and long defense played a part in steering Minnesota shots wide or long, but it's also true that no Gopher found the soft touch of a natural scorer. Minnesota's game plan and its conceptual approach were sound; the shooting touch of the Gophers left a lot to be desired. That fact, plus Lawrence Westbrook's disappearing act (6 points in the game's first three minutes and 15 seconds; just 2 points in the game's final 36:45), spelled doom for a ballclub that is left to wait for Selection Sunday, and the decision of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. Yes, Minnesota's competitive effort (unlike a 29-point loss in East Lansing roughly one month ago) should rate as a minor positive for Tubby and Co., but the inability to get a lock-producing win could still hurt the Gophers in the days before March 15.
Enough of the Gophers. It's Michigan State who will move on to Semifinal Saturday. The Spartans, in light of the bracket-busting developments in the Big East and Big 12 tournaments, are now two wins away from a likely No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. If Chris Allen and Marquise Gray continue to excel, there's little doubt the Izzone will be ecstatic come Sunday afternoon.
By Matthew Zemek BigTen-fans.com Michigan State Correspondent