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Senior Ellis sparks MSU comeback win in Minnesota

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Alvin Ellis shoots over Minnesota's Eric Curry during the second half. Michigan State won 75-74 in overtime. Ellis scored 20 points.

Minneapolis – Alvin Ellis has had his share of ups and downs in his career at Michigan State. The senior has had injuries, off-court problems and as coach Tom Izzo said on Tuesday night, Ellis has had his share of time in the doghouse.

But when Michigan State was looking to someone, anyone, to create a spark on Tuesday at Minnesota in the Big Ten opener, it was Ellis that provided it.

With the banged-up Spartans in foul trouble and trailing by 15 points late in the first half, it was Ellis that picked up his teammates, scoring a career-high 20 points, including the winning free throws with 10.6 seconds left in overtime to give Michigan State a 75-74 victory.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 75, Minnesota 74 (OT)

“We do pressure free throws every day in practice,” Ellis said. “If we miss a free throw, we’re running. So I knew I had to take us home and I tried to knock them down.”

He did just that, and in the process rescued Michigan State (9-5, 1-0 Big Ten) from what looked like a sure defeat to open conference play. He got help from Nick Ward, who scored 22, and Tum Tum Nairn, who matched his career-best with 13 points.

But it was the play of Ellis – a role player that entered the game averaging 2.3 points a game in his career – that really brought the Spartans to life. He entered the game early and scored eight points in the first half before starting the second half and playing 36 minutes.

“I told him tonight he would be one of the first guys in and he had a different mentality,” Izzo said. “You never know, for every kid … Bryn Forbes going into his senior year wasn’t anybody’s favorite player and he rose up. Alvin can help us because he can play three spots and he’s got what we lack, which is toughness.

“I’m happy for him. I’m actually proud of him. He took a challenge and he responded, and that’s what you hope guys do. He probably looks at us a little bit differently now and I look at him a little differently right now.”

It’s been a long journey for Ellis to get to this point, but things started to change a couple of weeks ago. That’s when Izzo said it was time for a heart-to-heart. They needed more out of Ellis and it was time to start making it happen.

After that meeting, Ellis vowed he would be a different player.

“To his credit, he played with a purpose tonight,” Izzo said. “He’s been practicing better. Maybe he needed a chance and maybe I needed him to do something to give him a chance. So both started happening a couple weeks ago.”

And the result was his performance on Tuesday, one that helped Michigan State brush off a first half that had Izzo challenging the players at halftime.

“We knew we were down but we knew we couldn’t stop fighting,” Ellis said. “They do lot refusing and we had to lock that down and that’s what we did in the second half and we came together.”

Cassius Winston stepping up for Spartans

After that ugly first half, Michigan State came out pushing the pace in the second half and scored the first seven points before allowing Minnesota to regain a 14-point lead with 11:20 to play. But the Spartans kept plugging away and when Eron Harris fed Ward for a dunk with a little more than eight minutes to play, the Minnesota lead had been cut to 55-50. Michigan State later tied the game at 55 on a layup from Ellis and went ahead 58-57 on a free throw from Ellis.

From there, it was Ward who went to work, scoring six straight and giving Michigan State a 64-61 lead with 2:48 to play in the game.

Two free throws from Eric Curry trimmed the MSU lead to one with 2:40 to play. The teams then traded layups to leave the Spartans ahead, 66-65, with 1:36. Each team missed open jumpers from there before Nate Mason tied the game at 66 with 45.5 seconds to play when he split a pair of free throws.

Ward got fouled on Michigan State’s next possession but missed the front end of a one-and-one before a shot from Amir Coffey was off the mark for Minnesota, forcing overtime.

Once in overtime, Joshua Langford with a layup to put Michigan State ahead was answered by two Murphy free throws with 3:34 to play. Nairn then hit a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to put the Spartans up three with 2:30 left in overtime. Murphy answered with a layup and Bakary Konate put back a missed jumper to give Minnesota a one-point lead. Harris then put MSU back up one with a layup with a minute to play but Dupree McBrayer gave Minnesota a 74-73 lead with 33.8 seconds to play with a pair of free throws.

That’s when Ellis stepped to the line with the winning shots before Mason’s final attempt misfired at the buzzer.

Mason had 18 for Minnesota (12-2, 0-1) while Coffey scored 17, McBrayer had 14 and Jordan Murphy scored 12 points and grabbed 21 rebounds.

“I just thought the first five minutes in the second half; we let them set the rules and the tone and it really hurt us,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “They made some big plays tonight down the stretch. Alvin made those two free throws that were big. Tum Tum hits that three, so give them credit. Our guys fought, but Michigan State found a way to win.”

And they might have found a guy to follow.

“He’s tough and he stepped up big for us,” Nairn said of Ellis. “I’m so happy for him and how he played. He played with so much composure and that’s what a senor is supposed to do in and environment like this with the young team we have.”