Gophers hold on for chance at NIT title
NEW YORK — New York Knicks players had to be jealous watching how hot the Gophers were from three-point range in the first half of Tuesday night’s NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden.
They hit four straight shots from beyond the arc and finished with seven three-pointers in the first half to take a 10-point halftime lead against Florida State.
Minnesota couldn’t keep up that shooting for long.
Eventually they went cold and the absence of injured starting center Elliott Eliason caught up to the Gophers, who blew a chance to win the game in regulation after senior Malik Smith missed two free throws with 7.4 seconds left.
Florida State’s Devon Bookert’s three-pointer with three-tenths of a second left sent the game into overtime, but the Gophers stilled pulled out the 67-64 win Tuesday to advance to their second NIT final in three years.
Sophomore Mo Walker, who replaced Eliason at center, scored just nine points, but he hit 6 of 8 free throws in overtime to help his team escape with the win.
Senior Austin Hollins and junior DeAndre Mathieu led the Gophers (24-13) with 17 points apiece. Junior Andre Hollins also had 13 points, including two free throws in overtime.
Minnesota, which lost by 24 points to Stanford in the championship game in 2012, will play Southern Methodist (27-9) in Thursday night’s title game.
The Mustangs, who are led by former NBA coach Larry Brown, overcame a 13-point deficit to defeat Clemson 65-59 in the first semifinal game Tuesday.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino attended New York Knicks games as a toddler when his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was coaching the team in the 1980s.
The younger Pitino never had goals of making the NCAA tournament in his first year at Minnesota.
But there was an obvious excitement when the Gophers advanced to play in Madison Square Garden — and now they’ll get to play for a championship.
Minnesota’s program also won the NIT title in 1993 and 1998 (although the latter year was vacated by an academic scandal).
Pitino wore a heavy look of concern early in the second half when Eliason’s replacement, Mo Walker, and starting power forward Joey King both picked up four fouls with 15 minutes left in the game.
That meant playing even smaller and with guys who rarely saw minutes, if at all during NIT and before that.
— Junior forward Oto Osenieks, who will have career-ending knee surgery after the season, played more than a minute for the first time in eight games.
— Smith, who scored in double figures only once in the last 15 games while struggling with his shot, had to play a major role in the second half when he wasn’t ready.
— Freshmen Charles Buggs and Daquein McNeil went from sitting at the end of the bench to having to defend Florida State’s starters.
Suddenly, the Seminoles were the team with all the momentum and were slowly overpowering with their athleticism and aggressiveness.
Florida State’s Aaron Thomas tied the game with 1 of 2 free throws to make it 45-45 with 8:16 left.
Austin Hollins made one of the highlights of the game with an emphatic block on Thomas on an earlier play.
Hollins’ timely defense led to a spark offensively with a three-pointer and floater to keep the Gophers ahead by a point with less than five minutes remaining.
The senior captain had almost single-handedly carried Minnesota with a career-high 32 points in a quarterfinal win against Southern Mississippi in his last home game last week.
Hollins really needed some help down the stretch Tuesday, though.
King had been Minnesota’s second-leading scorer in the NIT with three of his four straight double figure games.
But that ended when the Eagan native fouled out with just three points with 8:16 remaining.
Walker finally checked back into the game after sitting for about 12 minutes. His presence took the pressure off Osenieks, who came off the weak side to tip in a missed shot with 3:52 left.
That might have been the biggest basket of his career because it answered the Seminoles, who took a 51-50 lead on the previous possession.
Minnesota eventually took a three-point advantage after Mathieu’s layup with 1:34 left in regulation.