With 11 seconds to play in overtime, Michigan State senior guard and former Minnesota commit Alvin Ellis III calmly stepped to the line with a chance to beat the Golden Gophers.
He knocked them both down and the Spartans (9-5, 1-0 Big Ten) hung on for a 75-74 overtime win against Minnesota (12-2, 0-1) at Williams Arena in Minneapolis in the conference opener for both teams on Tuesday.
Michigan State trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half and 39-26 at the half. But the Spartans gradually eased their way back behind much tougher interior play and timely outside shooting.
Ellis came up huge with 20 points off the bench on 7-for-13 shooting to go with 6 rebounds, while freshman big man Nick Ward continued his torrid stretch by posting 22 points and 10 rebounds — both figures leading the Spartans.
WHY IT HAPPENED: The bench. Common sense seemed to dictate that this should have been a huge advantage for Minnesota considering Michigan State’s injury issues. But MSU got off to a slow start behind the offensive struggles of starters like Cassius Winston, Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid. Enter the likes of Ellis and Tum Tum Nairn (yes, Nairn) and the offense ignited. The duo provided 33 of the Spartans’ 40 bench points compared to just 10 from Minnesota’s reserves.
WHAT IT MEANS: For all the talk about Michigan State’s deficiencies, the Spartans have opened Big Ten play with a win for the first time in three seasons. Now they’ll have a chance to build on it with two consecutive home games against Northwestern and Rutgers in the next eight days.
WHO STARRED: Ward and Ellis. Faced with double-teams for much of the game, Ward didn’t look for ways to pass out of them. Instead, he just scored over them. The big man played a season-high 33 minutes and, although he missed what could have been a game-winning free throw at the end of regulation, the Spartans would not have had a chance without him.
Tuesday was also Ward’s eighth straight game scoring in double figures. In his last six games, Ward is averaging more than 18 points on 65-percent shooting while grabbing better than 8 rebounds per game.
Nick Ward can do no wrong right now. pic.twitter.com/s9xvVNqrht
— Troy Machir (@TroyMachir) December 28, 2016
And with the Golden Gophers swamping the paint in the first half, Ellis proved to be the lone player who could hit an outside shot. Without him, the halftime chasm would’ve been even wider.
WHO STUMBLED: Eron Harris. Tom Izzo could very often be seen screaming at Harris during timeouts, and with good reason. His 5-point performance halted what had been a stretch of seven straight games scoring in double figures. And when his shot didn’t fall, it affected every other facet of his game as well.
WHO IS NEXT: The Spartans host 12-2 Northwestern, which has won nine straight, on Friday in their Big Ten home opener. The game tips off at 6 p.m. EST on the Big Ten Network.
40-10 bench scoring disparity tonight. Nairn and Ellis hit every timely shot. pic.twitter.com/5DWxhlwGdm
— Luke Srodulski (@lsrodulski) December 28, 2016