Updated Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 01:24 PM
The Spartans were charging, and the Golden Gophers were coming unglued, rushing shots, turning the ball over and losing their focus in transition.
It was a scene that has played out so many times before at Williams Arena, only this time something changed. Minnesota steeled itself against the Michigan State surge and just started hitting back. Maybe this is a different team after all.
Andre Hollins had 22 points and six assists and Rodney Williams added 15 points and six rebounds to lift No. 9 Minnesota to a 76-63 victory over No. 18 Michigan State on Monday.
Trevor Mbakwe had 11 points and 12 rebounds and the Gophers (13-1, 1-0 Big Ten) shot 56.6 percent to open conference play with an emphatic victory over a team that has owned them for years. This time Minnesota slammed the door with an 18-2 run over the final seven minutes in front of a euphoric Williams Arena crowd.
"We're finally, I think," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said, "growing up."
Keith Appling had 15 points and five assists and Gary Harris scored 12 for the Spartans (11-3, 0-1), who had beaten Minnesota 13 of the last 15 times the two teams had met.
Austin Hollins scored 12 points and the Gophers withstood the inevitable run from the Spartans in the second half to beat them in the regular season for the first time since 2006.
"There's so many big games, you'd like to steal one when you have a chance," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "They played better than us down the stretch."
Appling scored six points during an 11-0 run early in the second half that gave Michigan State a 55-51 lead, and a Gophers team that had shown more toughness and grit in the first 20 minutes than they had in the last four years started to crack.
The offense bogged down and the defense weakened, with Appling's layup capping a 15-3 run that gave them a 59-54 lead with 9:23 to go.
The Gophers flinched, but they didn't falter. They were the aggressors from there on out, getting the Spartans in foul trouble with they're relentless attacking style.
Mbakwe threw down a dunk on a pretty feed from Joe Coleman, who then got a bucket on a goaltending violation by Adreian Payne. Andre Hollins finally knocked down a jumper for Minnesota's first bucket in more than five and a half minutes and Hollins hit two free throws for a 64-61 lead with 5:33 to play. He then hit a pretty fall-away jumper from the baseline and the Gophers were off and running.
"We knew our history with Michigan State ... We have leads and they come out and pull away in the last three minutes," Mbakwe said. "But we wanted to take care of them and we wanted to hit them back and take care of homecourt."
Just before tipoff, the Gophers climbed to No. 9 in The Associated Press Top 25, their highest ranking since they reached the Final Four in 1997. But this was the measuring stick. The Spartans had beaten them four straight times, with Izzo always prevailing thanks to a bigger, more physical and mentally tougher squad that was able to push the Gophers around.
This year, the Gophers brought their deepest and burliest team of the Tubby era into the Barn determined to prove that they're not the softies that succumbed to the rigorous Big Ten schedule in recent seasons. They went 12-24 in Big Ten play over the last two seasons and have only posted two winning records in the conference since Bobby Jackson led them to the Final Four.
But Mbakwe was back in the starting lineup after missing last year with a torn ACL in his right knee, Andre Hollins had emerged as a top-flight playmaker on the perimeter and Williams was finally starting to harness his athleticism. The Gophers needed this one to set the right tone for contending in a conference that boasts six teams in the top 20 and four in the top nine.
"We're a totally different team this year," Williams said.
Minnesota came out firing in the early going, opening up a 12-point lead in the first 15 minutes, sending a charge through Williams Arena.
That's when Smith went to his bench and Izzo made his move. The Spartans coach stayed with four starters and reserve Travis Trice, who keyed a 10-0 run to get them back in the game.
Derrick Nix had 10 points and five rebounds in a battle down low with Mbakwe that resembled a defensive end going at a left tackle.
"This is a game where you can come in here and get a good win against a quality team on the road, and it helps you out for later on down the road," Trice said. "We lost one, but it's a long season. We got to bounce back."