If Gophers men’s basketball coach Clem Haskins was asked who stuck the dagger in his team’s heart during Saturday’s 84-82 loss to No. 5 Michigan State, he might try to tell you the perpetrators were wearing black and white stripes.
But while referees Ted Hillary, Phil Bova and Randy Drury called a game that was about as consistent as some of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s policies, it was the Spartans’ Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson who sliced through the No. 22 Gophers defense and sneaked out of Williams Arena with a win.
Cleaves scored 23 points and Peterson added 20, helping lead the Spartans (22-4, 11-1 in the Big Ten) back from a 10-point deficit to win their 11th game in a row.
Minnesota (14-8, 5-7) led 73-63 with seven minutes to play, but Cleaves and Peterson scored 16 of the Spartans’ last 21 points to pull out the highly emotional win in a game that had Gophers students hurling coins and epithets at the officials.
Afterward, Cleaves joked that he was in fear for his life.
“They were about ready to kill me,” Cleaves said when he left the court after a post-game TV interview.
But it was unclear if the Gophers fans’ hatred was more intense for certain Spartans or the referees.
Gophers forward Quincy Lewis, who led all scorers with 29 points, was a victim of several questionable calls. He went to the line nine times in the first half, but only four after intermission. And with Minnesota up a point with less than a minute remaining, Lewis missed a 15-foot shot and appeared to be fouled by Antonio Smith.
Following the inbounds play that came after a Spartans timeout with 42 seconds to play, Lewis fouled Cleaves on another debatable call and sent the Michigan State point guard to the line, where he hit both free throws.
On the next Gophers possession, the refs continued the trend with a non-call when Smith stole the ball from Lewis, when it looked like Lewis was fouled.
The Spartans called another timeout, and Haskins made a bewildering move. He put Jason Stanford, who had yet to play, in the game for Joel Przybilla — apparently for defensive purposes, which would come back to haunt the Gophers in the game’s final seconds.
After the timeout, Peterson threw a long pass to teammate Charlie Bell who slammed it home to give Michigan State an 82-79 lead.
After Gophers point guard Terrance Simmons hit a three-pointer to tie the game with eight seconds left, Cleaves drove the length of the court and hit a layup with 1.2 seconds on the clock to provide the winning margin.
Cleaves’ drive to the basket was remarkably easy because Przybilla was watching him go to the hoop while sitting on the bench — something which surprised Cleaves.
“I was happy to not see him in there,” Cleaves said of Przybilla. “I was surprised because it’s always good not to see the big 7-foot shot-blocker in there.”
Peterson, Cleaves and Spartans coach Tom Izzo all called the game the biggest win of their careers. The Gophers, meanwhile, seemed shocked that the game got away, albeit with a little help from the officials.
“Sometimes, unfortunately, you can’t decide a game on the court,” a clearly perturbed Haskins said after the game, “but I can’t say anything more than that.
“I can’t say what’s on my mind. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to coach at Penn State Wednesday.”
While Haskins wouldn’t say it, it seemed apparent his anger was directed toward the officiating.
Lewis, on the other hand, wouldn’t blame the refs for the loss, which might have something to do with the fact he would face a suspension for any criticism of the officials. Either way, he directed the blame toward his team.
“They don’t shoot the ball, they don’t pass the ball and they don’t dribble the ball,” Lewis said of the officials.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, now in eighth place in the Big Ten, Michigan State does those three things pretty well. That’s why the Spartans are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, while the Gophers seem destined for a shot at defending their NIT Championship.