Spartans fall to Gophers to open Big Ten play

Derrick Nix was the big reason why Michigan State beat Texas last week, and the senior center’s huge drop-off in play Monday was the main reason the Spartans lost, 76-63, in the Big Ten opener at Minnesota.

Nix, coming off his top game as a collegiate with 25 points and 11 rebounds against Texas, scored just 10 points and managed only four rebounds. Even those totals wouldn’t have been so bad had Nix not missed 10 of his 15 shots — many from point-blank range. After making 11-of-13 free throws against the Longhorns, Nix could not get to the charity stripe even once.

“He had 11 great looks,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on his WJR-AM radio show. “Those are shots he made all last week (in practice) and in the last game. But I liked the way we fed him in the post.”

Nix’s jump hook pretty much deserted him and he showed exasperation on his face when missing an uncontested shot under the basket in the second half. Nothing much was going in, but Nix didn’t back off despite the lack of success. Izzo actually liked that one aspect of his play. Izzo would have felt worse if Nix, whom he needs to score, had stopped shooting. A scorer must believe the next one is going in to maintain production over the course of games.

Nix simply can’t miss shots like that on a regular basis, and had made 53 percent of his shots before this game.

It was just a bad day all around for Nix. He committed only 16 fouls all season, for just over one per game, but got his fifth and fouled out with 3:42 to play.

The big guy doesn’t have to play as well as he did against Texas for the Spartans to repeat as Big Ten champions, but he can’t play even close to how he did against Minnesota if his team is to be a force.

Point guard Keith Appling, who also played with foul trouble, scored 15 points with five assists and a career-high six steals. Gary Harris chipped in 12 points at the other guard spot. Travis Trice hit all three three-pointers he took in the first half, but then didn’t score again.

Still, getting 36 points from the top three guards should be enough for the Spartans. But they need much more than 14 points from their big men. Forward-center Adreian Payne had only four points. Branden Dawson, who plays guard and forward, contributed eight points.

Izzo has four days between this loss and Saturday’s Big Ten home opener with Purdue (6-6) to get the kinks worked out.

Williams Arena at Minnesota, known as “The Barn,” is one of the last college venues remaining from a bygone era when fans were right on top of the action.

The Golden Gophers, ranked in the Top 10 for the first time in 31 seasons, have it rocking like it hasn’t since that 1981-82 team won the Big Ten with Randy Breuer and Trent Tucker controlling the court for coach Jim Dutcher.

But “The Barn” door definitely was open Monday afternoon for the No. 18 Michigan State to come in and steal the game from the No. 9 Gophers. The Spartans got outstanding play from Appling and his backup, Trice, in the first half, and led, 59-54, with 9:22 remaining to play.

But then Minnesota_  led by guard Andre Hollins’ 22 points and forwards Trevor Mbakwe, who had a double-double, and Rodney Williams — slammed “The Barn” door shut. The Gophers closed out the game with a 22-4 run.

“I’m disappointed we didn’t finish the job,” Izzo said on his radio show. “We made some foolish, foolish plays.”

The Spartans were fortunate to have the lead that late in a game in which it got beat in every area of play.

They were a ghastly 2-for-10 at the free throw line. Izzo shook his head, pursed his lips and paced nervously while Dawson missed both free throw attempts early in the second half.

But there were bigger deficiencies than that.

MSU had held opponents to 35-percent shooting from the field this season, but Minnesota burned them with 58-percent accuracy. Hollins was 7-for-10 from the field, perfect on seven three throws and added seven assists.

“Our transition defense wasn’t very good,” Izzo said.

The Gophers (13-1) pulled down 25 defensive rebounds to 14 by the Spartans to assure plenty of fast breaks and quick possessions.

Michigan State (11-3) had out-rebounded every opponent until getting taken on the glass, 42-32, by the Gophers. Mbakwe grabbed 12 rebounds and Williams chipped in five.

Payne contributed a respectable seven rebounds and guard Denzel Valentine stepped up with six. But center Nix was no factor in this game as either a rebounder or scorer.

And that was the key to losing a game that was there for the taking.