STARKVILLE, MISS. — Ben Johnson couldn't have asked for a better start to his head coaching career with the Gophers men's basketball team. He's still undefeated at 7-0, only now it probably won't go unnoticed.
Sunday was supposed to be the first time the first-year coach and the Big Ten's projected last-place team would be humbled, playing an upper-echelon SEC opponent.
So you can imagine how shocked the Humphrey Coliseum crowd was when the Gophers jumped to a 14-0 lead and never trailed in an impressive 81-76 victory against Mississippi State.
"This is a very good Mississippi State team," Johnson said. "But our guys are battle-tested and they found a way to rise up and do it again."
As surprising as the undefeated start is under Johnson, the Gophers might really start to open eyes around the country after their second consecutive true road victory against a power conference opponent and the program's first road win against the SEC since 1999.
"The whole game it was multiple guys, and if you look at the stat sheet, everybody who played contributed," said Johnson, with all five starters finishing in double figures.
The Gophers, who were led by senior guard Payton Willis' 24 points, called timeout with 37.8 seconds left after junior guard Iverson Molinar ignited the once-quiet home crowd with consecutive three-point plays to tie the score 76-76.
After the ball exchanged hands to run down the clock, Willis squared up his defender and nailed a dagger three-pointer at the top of the key with 17 seconds to play.
"I just came down and hit a shot, but my teammates gave me the confidence to take it and knock it down," Willis said.
Molinar, who scored 26 points to lead the Bulldogs (6-2), couldn't answer this time when his three-point attempt fell short on the ensuing possession. Willis then sealed it with two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining.
For the second consecutive game, the Gophers made plays down the stretch to remain unbeaten. senior guard Luke Loewe's game-winning put-back did it in Tuesday's 54-53 victory at Pittsburgh.
"Everybody is doing their job each night," said Willis, who also finished with seven assists and two steals. "It's only going to get harder from here. We have Michigan State in a few days [Wednesday at home], so we'll be prepared. We're going to be a team that plays together."
The Gophers had lost 12 true road games in a row before Tuesday's victory at Pitt, and now they've won back-to-back such games for the first time since victories at Purdue and Northwestern in January 2017.
The Bulldogs (6-2), who had only lost this year against Louisville in the Bahamas, were undefeated at home and 12-point favorites Sunday against Minnesota.
Loewe's reverse layup on a backdoor cut concluded a 14-0 opening run for the Gophers, who threw the early gut punch even down top-scoring bench player Sean Sutherlin because of a knee injury.
Mississippi State failed to score its first basket until Tolu Smith's baseline jumper with 15:31 remaining. Smith, who averages 15.3 points, was held to only seven Sunday on 3-for-9 shooting.
Senior forward Eric Curry not only matched the 6-11, 245-pound Smith's physicality, but he outplayed him with a season-best 12 points, five rebounds and 6-for-6 foul shooting.
"I want to set the tone by leading by example with those guys," Curry said. "I just came out and played with heart and played hard."
Garrison Brooks' 25-foot heave at the buzzer pulled the Bulldogs within 35-32 at halftime, but the Gophers pulled away again in the second half when Loewe's layup off Curry's steal made it 60-46 with 12:48 to play.
Mississippi State ranked second in the SEC with a plus-12.6 rebounding margin and stuck around by winning the rebounding battle 42-27, which included 14 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points.
The Gophers, though, showed poise in crunch time with only four turnovers. The confidence they showed at the start continued with seven three-pointers in the second half. Willis, sophomore forward Jamison Battle and senior guard E.J. Stephens combined for 11 of the team's 12 threes.
Johnson knows staying undefeated won't be easy with early Big Ten play starting next week vs. No. 22 Michigan State on Wednesday and at No. 24 Michigan on Saturday, but he's proud the Gophers have learned how to win so early in his coaching tenure.
"[Sunday] was the prime time," Johnson said. "All those games that led up this contributed to our toughness."