Sunday, February 27, 2011

Michigan State "boards" 2nd half run to beat Gophers


If fans considered Minnesota's last season an aberration, they may remember the 2010-11 season as a contagion. The Gophers lost 65-51 to #8/10 Michigan State Sunday at Williams Arena, which will surely add concerns about the direction of the program.

And that's not taking the Big Ten Tournament into account, where Minnesota (12-17, 4-12) has not advanced past the first round since 2007. The Gophers would have to win the tournament championship to qualify for a post-season spot, which would be an automatic NCAA tournament bid.

With Minnesota dropping its fifth conference game after building a double-digit lead (12 in Sunday's loss), a reversal of that trend may be difficult.

"We played decent basketball for 30 minutes tonight," said Minnesota head coach Pam Borton. "Our passing was much to be desired. Our turnovers really fueled them offensively."

Michigan State (25-4, 13-3) took control in the final 13:24, limiting Minnesota to two field goals, forcing 22 turnovers for the game and ending the game with a 32-6 run.

Minnesota did play with life in the first half, outrebounding Michigan State 24-11, but Michigan State siphoned the hometown's energy with a 22-9 showing in rebounds for the second. Not even Katie Loberg's 19 points and seven rebounds were enough to stop the Big Ten front-runners.

Sparking the Big Ten regular season champions were Kalisha Keane and Lykendra Johnson, who scored 19 and 18 points respectively.

"(Minnesota) can put a team out there that's physically imposing," said Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant. "We kept Lykendra out there and (moved) Porsche Poole to point guard because we just weren't getting enough offense. Porsche's performance really turned the tide for us."

Poole scored 10 points in 18 minutes for Michigan State.

Although the Spartans had locked up the regular season title last week, Merchant said the season-ending victory would keep their tournament resumé in solid shape when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding. No matter what happens in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State will earn a post-season berth.

"We needed to do it without Penn State beating Purdue for the outright championship. You don't want to give committees any opportunity to think you're not on track," she said.

Should Minnesota win its first round game against Northwestern on Thursday in Indianapolis, they would face Michigan State on Friday, who owns a first-round bye and the top seed in the conference tournament.

Borton believes her Gophers have the capability to threaten in the "last chance" tournament as the chemistry has improved, even if their record has little to show the bonding.

"They actually want to be around each other. I know this team knows they can play with anybody," she said.

In previous years, such statements from lower-tier teams would sound far-fetched. However, the Big Ten Conference has not seen any turnover in coaching for the last four years; head coaches understand how to approach each of their opponents. Since no one has to prepare for any new system, the chance of a lower team surprising a strong squad is higher than before.

"That gap has completely changed. The bottom and middle tier have come together," Merchant said.

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