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Neitzel explodes for 19 to beat Minnesota

The Gophers had no answer for the pre-season Big Ten player of the year.

It was the week that wasn’t for the Minnesota men’s basketball team.

With home games against No. 9 ranked Indiana and No. 11 ranked Michigan State, the Gophers knew what was at stake.

Coach Tubby Smith’s squad had the opportunity to add a quality win or two to its résumé and enter the NCAA tournament picture if it could pick up a victory against either the Hoosiers or Spartans at Williams Arena.

Leaving “Statement Week” 0-2 after a 78-73 loss to Michigan State on Sunday evening, Minnesota must be wondering what it has to do to get a signature win.

“We knew we’d have to play a pretty good game to beat these (teams),” Smith said. “We look like a million dollars one time and we look like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde sometimes. You wonder why.”

On Thursday night the Gophers played tenacious defense, forcing the Hoosiers into a season-high 26 turnovers, but let a two-point lead with less than two minutes remaining evolve into a five-point loss.

On Sunday, Minnesota (12-5 overall, 2-3 Big Ten) held the Spartans’ leading scorer, sophomore forward Raymar Morgan – who scorched the Gophers for a career-high 31 points and 10 rebounds when the teams met in East Lansing on Jan. 5 – to nine points, but still found itself on the wrong end of the scoreboard.

Thankfully for the Spartans, Drew Neitzel was there to pick up the slack for Morgan and put away the Gophers.

Neitzel scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half and hit 5-of-6 three-pointers in the final 20 minutes of play to help Michigan State (16-2, 4-1) seize control of a back-and-forth game.

When the teams met 15 days earlier in East Lansing, Neitzel scored only four points as he was pressured all night, mainly by freshman guard Al Nolen. But Nolen was a late game scratch Sunday with a thigh injury, something Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he thought made things easier for his team.

“I think we were helped with Nolen not being there,” Izzo said. “I think that hurt them not having him in there. I think he has been an energy button for them.”

From the onset, it was evident the teams were familiar with one another after playing two weeks ago. Much of the first half the two teams traded both hoops and turnovers and Minnesota trailed 31-27 at the break.

The Gophers, as was the case Thursday, were reenergized coming out of the locker room and even led briefly at 40-38, but again had trouble finishing and never regained the lead again once Neitzel got going, putting Michigan State up as many as 10.

“He’s a good player, he’s their number one option so he is going to get his points at sometime because they go to him so much,” sophomore guard Lawrence Westbrook said.

Smith had a different opinion of what went wrong when defending Neitzel.

“I thought (Sunday) our defense broke down. I thought we learned from (Thursday’s) game because (allowing) open shots cost us that game and (they) cost us today,” Smith said. “We are still not as efficient as we should be.”

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