MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Michigan State got to celebrate its Big Ten title and finish the regular season on a winning note.
The 10th-ranked Spartans clinched its first outright conference championship last week when Penn State lost to Purdue. Then, they lost to Ohio State by one point. On Sunday, Michigan State rallied from 12 points down in the second half to beat Minnesota 65-51.
“I felt like in order for us to kind of put an exclamation point on the outright championship we needed to take one more step and earn it,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said.
The win also kept the Spartans from losing back-to-back games for the first time all season.
“As you’re heading into the postseason, you don’t want to give committees any opportunity to think you’re not on track,” Marchant said. “You want to be playing good basketball in March.”
The Spartans (25-4, 13-3 Big Ten) scored the game’s first six points but played uninspired basketball for much of the first half, while the Gophers were much more aggressive and physical to take command of the game just before halftime.
“They came out and caught us off-guard on the rebounding and they were able to convert,” said Kalisha Keane, who kept the Spartans close with 12 of her 19 points in the first half. “I just don’t think we wanted it as much in the first half.”
Minnesota (12-17, 4-12) built a seven-point halftime lead on the strength of a 24-11 edge in rebounds. Katie Loberg scored 19 points for the Gophers, and her free throw with 13:24 left gave Minnesota a 45-33 lead.
The Spartans turned it around in a hurry with 13 straight points as part of a 26-2 run in which they limited the Gophers on the boards and held them to one basket in 11 minutes. Lykendra Johnson scored 10 of her 18 points during that stretch.
“We just weren’t able to get a stop or put the ball in the basket,” said Minnesota’s China Antoine, who closed out her home career with the Gophers by scoring three points and handing out five assists.
The late second-half run gave the Spartans seven wins in their last eight games headed into the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, which starts Thursday.
“We had a good talk in the locker room,” Keane said. “Just making sure that we play like champions because we are champions this year.”
Porsche Poole added 10 for the Spartans. Kiara Buford scored 10 for Minnesota, which has lost five of six.
It was the fifth time this season that the Gophers squandered a double-digit lead in the second half against a Big Ten opponent.
“We can play with anybody, but we have to play as a group,” said Gophers coach Pam Borton, whose team will have its second straight losing season, barring a miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Spartans have a first-round bye in Indianapolis and would play Minnesota again if the Gophers win their first-round matchup against Northwestern.
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