Donnelly: Gophers eventually overcome NIT lull to avoid an upset
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MINNEAPOLIS - Austin Hollins knew Tuesday's NIT opener against High Point might be his last game at Williams Arena, so he decided to go on a little tour of the old Barn.
The Gophers, a 16-point favorite over the Big South regular-season champion, led by just six with over a minute to play in the first half. The Minnesota defensive effort up to that point had been underwhelming, but that was about to change.
Hollins, spearheading a full-court press that the Gophers had been using sparingly on the night, chased a loose ball in front of the High Point bench.
"I was just trying to save the ball so one of my teammates could get it," he recalled after the game. "Unfortunately they didn't get it, and there was nowhere else to go. It was either run into the bench or jump over it so I just tried to jump over it and hope I landed OK."
He landed OK - in the second row behind the Panthers bench. But because he saved the ball, he didn't have time to stick around and reacquaint himself with his home for the past four seasons. Hollins hopped up, climbed onto the raised floor and scrambled back into the play.
The fans - what sounded like all 3,493 of them - found their voice for the first time all game. A buzz returned to the Barn and it lasted the rest of the half, through two Gophers defensive stops (rare as a hen's tooth in the first half) and a Joey King 3-pointer that stretched Minnesota's lead to nine at the break.
The Gophers ended up with an 88-81 victory on a night when nobody really wanted to be at Williams Arena, but those in attendance eventually were determined to make the best of it.
"We do want to be in the NCAA Tournament but we've got to get past that," said Hollins, whose senior season will end in the collegiate version of a B-squad tournament. "This is a great opportunity for us to play some more games regardless of what tournament we're in. Yeah, it's a little disappointing at first but we're playing now. The first one's always the toughest game but we just want to keep it rolling. We want to go to New York. This is a great opportunity, especially for the young guys to get better, for this team to get better."
Early on, it looked like an opportunity destined to slip through the Gophers' fingers. They started out sluggish and took a turn for the worse when point guard DeAndre Mathieu crashed into the base of the basket on a hard foul and was lost for most of the game with a hip injury. Mathieu returned to action twice but ended up playing just 13 minutes on the night.
"We tried him in the second half and he was hobbling like crazy," head coach Richard Pitino said. "He was making some faces that were making the fans cringe, so I had to get him out of the game."
Pitino said he thought Mathieu - who he called "the heart and soul" of his team - would be OK for the Gophers' next game, which will be Sunday against four-seed Saint Mary's. But they still had to figure out a way to beat a plucky High Point squad that hit 12 3-pointers, made 21 of 23 free throws and refused to let the Gophers pull away.
Panthers coach Scott Cherry said he was impressed with the atmosphere in the Barn despite the lack of a big crowd and he was even more impressed with the job Pitino and his staff did of getting the Gophers to bounce back after the double gut-punch of a blowout loss to Wisconsin and a bursting NCAA tourney bubble.
"They had every reason to come out tonight and maybe not be really excited about playing," Cherry said. "I know the feeling being a team that was on the bubble when I was at the University of South Carolina as an assistant, and then having to turn around and play in the NIT. Sometimes you're not extremely excited about that, especially these guys who've played in the NCAA Tournament before."
Instead of moping, the Gophers took advantage of big nights from unexpected sources. With Mathieu sidelined, senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi played 23 minutes and scored a career-high 21 points. Forward Joey King chipped in 14 points (on 4-of-6 shooting) and seven boards, while Mo Walker and Andre Hollins each scored 13.
"It shows our character, even though we're coming off that disappointment of not making the NCAAs, coming off the disappointing loss to Wisconsin," Andre Hollins said of the team's resilience. "We've got a chance to play. It's a national tournament with a lot of great teams in it, a lot of teams that could have been NCAA Tournament teams."
Pitino admitted, however, that he was a bit concerned that his players would have a harder time getting up for the NIT than the bigger dance.
"That's human nature, but I think those guys fought human nature pretty good," Pitino said. "In practice they were really good. They seemed like they wanted to play. I think that's because two years ago they had a really good (NIT) experience. ... They won at LaSalle, at Middle Tennessee. For those places, this is a big, big deal. They're sold out. It's just different. It's a little bit of a different dynamic, so I thought our guys did a good job. They seemed like they really enjoyed it, they seemed like they wanted to keep playing."
They'll get at least one more chance, and with students returning from Spring Break on Sunday the hope is that the Barn will be rocking at least one more time this year. But Andre Hollins said he had no complaints about the crowd's effort on Tuesday.
"We have some good support. I thank everybody for coming out, even though it's the NIT. We still need them and it's still fun to play at home."