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Updated: March 23rd, 2014 8:46pm
For DeAndre Mathieu, NIT quarterfinal brings bout vs. his former coach

For DeAndre Mathieu, NIT quarterfinal brings bout vs. his former coach

by Pat Donnelly
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - When the Gophers fell behind 14-0 in the opening minutes of Sunday's NIT second-round tilt against Saint Mary's, head coach Richard Pitino didn't have any new tricks up his sleeve. He didn't have any secret formula or magic button he could push to make his team play better.

Instead, he tugged at his players' emotions. And it worked.

"He just really lit a fire under us," junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. "(He told us to) keep fighting, for your seniors if not for me. And our seniors are the ones who stepped up and got us going."

The Gophers rallied for a 63-55 victory and a berth in the NIT quarterfinals.

Minnesota will face Southern Miss on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. at Williams Arena with a trip to New York City for the NIT Final Four on the line. 

Mathieu will have a lot more than a trip to Madison Square Garden to play for on Tuesday.

Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall was the head coach at Morehead State when Mathieu failed to get a scholarship after an up-and-down freshman year. But even a taste of revenge on Tuesday would pale in comparison to the young man's first trip to the Big Apple.

"I've never been to New York City but I've got a lot of family there...they're really excited to get us there and show us a good time," Mathieu said. "I'm really excited. Madison Square Garden, they said it's just amazing, just the facilities and everything. So I'm really excited to get there. It's going to mean a lot, just to be playing for a championship. Even though we're not in the main thing, we're going to win this one and hopefully it plays out next year and helps us next year."

Well, they have to get there first. If they start Tuesday night the way they did on Sunday, they won't have to worry about finding Broadway tickets or the best place for a bagel and a schmear.

Saint Mary's, perennial bridesmaid of the West Coast Conference, has played for years in Gonzaga's shadow. That's kept the Gaels' profile undeservedly low. They've been one of the best mid-major programs in the last 10 years. Their successful decade includes five trips to the NCAA Tournament (with four wins in those five tourneys) and a run to the NIT quarterfinals in 2008-09.

But this year's Saint Mary's squad fell short. The Gaels slipped to fourth in the WCC, their worst finish since 2002-03, which was also Randy Bennett's second year as head coach at the tiny college in Moraga, Calif.

The Gaels added former Gopher and Hopkins graduate Joe Coleman, who transfered from Minnesota last offseason. But he is ineligible to play this year per NCAA rules, so he red-shirted this season. Coleman sent a tweet venting his frustration at the start of Sunday's game.

It was a two-bid year for the WCC, with regular-season and conference tourney winner Gonzaga and runner-up Brigham Young combining to hand Saint Mary's five of its 11 losses coming into the NIT.

Which made the start of Sunday's game that much more shocking. Behind eight points from first-team all-WCC guard Stephen Holt, the Gaels raced out to a 14-0 cushion before the 6-minute mark. The Gophers turned it over five times in the first 3 1/2 minutes and didn't get on the board until Mo Walker's wild hook shot in traffic with 13:10 to play in the first half.

"We knew they were a good team," senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi said. "We just couldn't find ways to stop them on the pick-and-roll and we couldn't find a bucket in the early parts of the game. But once Mo scored that bucket I think it really helped us pick up our defense and it really helped us snowball in confidence."

After the Gaels' initial surge, Minnesota went to work on defense. Ahanmisi, Mathieu and Andre Hollins hounded the perimeter. The inside was clogged by Walker and Elliott Eliason, who tied a career high with seven blocked shots. Joey King got the offense rolling with a couple of big buckets, which continued the late-season surge for the sophomore from Eagan.

"Once we hit that first media timeout, we were like, 'Guys, we're too hesitant on offense, not getting any stops on defense. We've got to change or else they're going to run us off the court,'" King said. "So we made the transition and we started to chip away at it."

They eventually tied the game at 19, then took their first lead at 29-28 on a put-back by Walker with just under 15 minutes to play in the game. Mathieu, Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and King each hit big 3-pointers down the stretch as Minnesota pulled away.

Given the omnipresence of the NCAA Tournament - the postgame interview session was even momentarily delayed so the players could watch the end of the Wichita State-Kentucky game - Pitino talked about how his team has dealt with the disappointment of missing out on the big dance.

"I understand the NIT is tough for everybody because the goal for everybody is to make the NCAA Tournament, but I just thought these guys, you could tell they really want to keep playing," said Pitino, who mentioned that the deeper they get into the NIT, the easier it is for the players to stay motivated.

But in the tougher moments - like when you're trailing 14-0, for example - he said it helps him and his players to think about the Gophers' seniors.

"I don't want to send them off this court with a loss. I feel like they deserve to walk off this court as winners so we're really excited about the opportunity for Tuesday."

Patrick Donnelly covers Golden Gophers men's basketball for 1500ESPN.com. He has covered the Minnesota sports scene, from pros to preps, for the last 15 years for a variety of outlets.
Email Pat | @donnelly612
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