Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 2/23/12
MINNEAPOLIS Ugly. That was the word Draymond Green kept coming back to when describing his Michigan State basketball team's performance Wednesday night against Minnesota. Yet despite how ugly the sixth-ranked Spartans may have played, they managed to escape Williams Arena with a 66-61 win to stay one game up on Ohio State in the Big Ten standings. "Any time you can get a road win, no matter how ugly it is, it means a lot," Green said after the victory. "Especially with the way the (Big Ten) race is right now. Where we're at in the race, we really needed this one." Michigan State improved to 12-3 in the conference, while the Buckeyes and Michigan both sit at 11-4. All three teams have three games remaining, and MSU and OSU will face each other March 4 in the final game of the regular season that could determine the conference champion. The Spartans weren't the first team this season to eke out a victory at Williams Arena against a Gophers squad whose NCAA Tournament hopes are quickly fading. Earlier this month, then-No. 22 Wisconsin withstood a late Gophers rally to win 68-61 in overtime. Though the Buckeyes won, 78-68, last week in Minneapolis, they too had to fend off a Minnesota squad that buckled down after OSU went on a 20-0 first-half run. Wednesday, however, Minnesota was playing with the lead for much of the second half. It was the Spartans who needed the late comeback. Michigan State didn't regain the lead until a pair of Keith Appling free throws with 32 seconds remaining put the Spartans ahead, 60-58. Turnovers caused by a combination of Minnesota's sloppy play and Michigan State's tough defense hurt the Gophers late. Minnesota committed seven turnovers in the final 7:18 of the second half. The Spartans committed five -- the entire game. Still, given how it played for much of the night, Michigan State wasn't exactly reveling in the win. "It was a game where we were outplayed most of the game. I'm going to make no ifs, ands or buts about it," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "It's a tough game when a team plays that hard to falter at the end. I feel for them, and yet I look at our team and I thought the effort-related things just weren't there. They outrebounded us, they got the loose balls, the out-drove us. . . . "The only thing I'd really give my team credit for is when you're trying to be in a championship run, you've got to steal a game somewhere." Minnesota indeed won the rebounding battle, 33-27. The Gophers shot 45.7 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from 3-point range, compared to 41.5 percent and 25.0 percent, respectively, for the Spartans. Michigan State committed fewer fouls (14) than Minnesota (20), as well as turnovers. But it was the timing of the Spartans' miscues that nearly cost them the game. Appling had two crucial fouls late in the second half that gave Minnesota five free throw attempts. He fouled Gophers freshman Andre Hollins on a 3-pointer, and Hollins' ensuing free throws gave Minnesota a seven-point lead. Two minutes later, Appling was whistled for a shooting foul that resulted in two more Gophers free throws and a four-point Minnesota lead. But Appling redeemed himself, knocking down six free throws in the game's final 32 seconds to seal the win for his Spartans. "That shows a little character on his part because as you can imagine, I wasn't really happy with him on those defensive mistakes," Izzo said of Appling. "We just had talked about it, and we did it again and then did it again. To have enough courage to step up to the line and after that and knock down free throws says a lot about him." The senior leadership of Green was also instrumental in helping Michigan State steal the victory. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior forward finished with a team-high 17 points and shot 4 of 8 from 3-point range. Defensively, Green had three steals in the final 7:18, including one in the final minute that gave the Spartans the lead for good. The Gophers and Spartans are both young teams -- each started a freshman, while MSU started two sophomores. But the difference, Izzo said, was the veteran Green. "The problem is when you have a young team -- our team's young too, kind of, but we have Draymond," Izzo said. "Draymond is just unbelievable. When you don't have that -- I'm not saying I don't know that, I don't know. They're pretty young and inexperienced, too." Before their battle with Ohio State, the Spartans host Nebraska this weekend and travel to face No. 24 Indiana on Feb. 28. Michigan State is riding a six-game winning streak, but Wednesday's uninspired win against Minnesota raised a red flag for Izzo. "We're in a tough stretch. We know it. That's the way it is," he said. "We've got (three) games left in it. We better figure out a way how to get out of it." Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.
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