EAST LANSING, MICH. – Gophers senior captain Eric Curry was having the best game of his career Wednesday night before going down with an ankle injury in the final minute against No. 10 Michigan State.
Curry, who delayed being a graduate assistant to play a sixth season, led his team with a career-high 19 points, but he watched helplessly from the bench as his teammates came up just short without him.
Joey Hauser’s layup with less than one second to play squashed any hopes of a monumental upset in the Gophers’ 71-69 loss against the Spartans, who extended their win streak to nine consecutive games.
“He got the ankle pretty good,” Gophers coach Ben Johnson said of Curry. “I don’t know the extent of it, but E.C.’s a warrior. He’ll be fine. … He’s kind of the leader of our team and he did a great job of showing that [Wednesday].”
Curry, who overcame three major injuries earlier in his career, landed awkwardly going after a defensive rebound with 59 seconds left. Not able to put weight on his lower left leg, Curry was carried off the floor by Gophers staff members.
Motivated by their inspirational leader sidelined, senior guard E.J. Stephens hit two free throws to tie the score 69-69 with 25.5 seconds left, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Spartans from escaping their first home loss in the series since 2014-15.
On the final play, Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard drove the lane and drew defenders away from the 6-9 Hauser, who saw two Gophers players fly by before sinking the point-blank shot.
“They were getting downhill, and we helped up the floor a little bit too late,” Johnson said. “But there were a couple times in that game [the Gophers] could’ve easily folded. This is a tough place to play. They didn’t give into the crowd. They didn’t give into momentum. They just kept coming.”
The Gophers (10-4, 1-4 Big Ten) handled the taunts and jeers from the opposing student section and withstood a number of runs from the first-place team in the Big Ten. Four starters scored in double figures to combine for 65 points including Stephens, who was second on the team behind Curry with 18 points.
“E.C.’s the heart and soul of this team,” Stephens said. “He leads us in every way. When any of our brothers go down it hurts, but at that time in the game we had to keep pushing and keep grinding. They made a heck of a play in the end.”
After trailing by 10 points in the first half, the Gophers were down only 34-31 after senior guard Payton Willis beat the halftime buzzer with a crowd-silencing three-pointer.
Willis, who had only nine points on 3-for-13 shooting in the 75-67 loss Dec. 8 against Michigan State at Williams Arena, finished with 15 points Wednesday.
The Spartans (14-2, 5-0) weren’t able to play over the weekend when their rivalry game against Michigan was postponed because of COVID-19 issues with the Wolverines.
In Sunday’s 73-60 loss at Indiana, the Gophers erased a 12-point deficit in the second half to take the lead at Assembly Hall, but they couldn’t finish going scoreless in the last three minutes.
Sophomore forward Jamison Battle extended his streak of double-figure scoring games to 29 with his 10th point on a baseline jumper to tie the score 51-51 (he finished with 13). And Curry followed by drawing fouls on Bingham and Hauser under the basket, twice giving the Gophers a one-point lead midway through the second half.
Willis and Stephens attacked the Michigan State defense by getting into the lane all night. Curry, who also had 18 points in the first meeting with Michigan State, was an inside force again. The Gophers outscored the Spartans 30-26 in points in the paint.
Curry, who was in a walking boot after the game, outplayed Michigan State’s starting frontcourt himself in the game, but it was Hauser that decided the outcome on the final play.
The Gophers, who lack frontcourt depth, can only hope Curry can recover from another setback like he’s done before with his head held high.
“If Eric can go, he’s going to go,” Johnson said. “He’s a grown man. He’ll tell me when he’s ready and do what’s right to get fixed up and get ready.”