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Updated: March 26th, 2014 12:39am
Gophers' NCAA frustration gone as they stretch NIT run to NYC

Gophers' NCAA frustration gone as they stretch NIT run to NYC

by Pat Donnelly
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - These are not your father's Golden Gophers. One look at the postgame playlist should tell you all you need to know about that.

No Frank Sinatra. No Bruce Springsteen. No Billy Joel. On Tuesday night, these Gophers blasted a classic from their own generation - Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind" - in their locker room to celebrate their impending trip to New York City.

Austin Hollins pumped in a career-high 32 points in his final game at Williams Arena as the Gophers knocked off Southern Mississippi 81-73. Next up: the winner of Wednesday night's game between Florida State and Louisiana Tech in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden next Tuesday night.

It's familiar territory for the Gophers, who reached the NIT championship game two years ago, but they'd like to avoid a repeat of their trip in 2012, which ended in a 24-point loss to Stanford. Getting Tuesday's version of Hollins would go a long way toward changing their luck. The team's lone senior starter has broken out of his midseason funk in a big way and capped his career at the Barn with a night to remember.

Hollins almost single-handedly brought the Gophers back from an early nine-point deficit as he scored 12 straight points late in the first half. He drained 3-pointers on three straight trips down the court during that stretch, then gave the Gophers their first lead since 2-0 on a putback with 3 minutes left in the first half. For one night, at least, the shooting woes that threatened to derail his senior season were but a distant memory.

"I knocked down a couple of shots early, and once you see it go through the net it really helps as a shooter," the typically understated Hollins said. "There were a lot of gaps in the zone and we were able to get a lot of open looks, and that helped as well."

Hollins' game was part of a big night from the front court. Joey King scored 15 points on 7-for-13 shooting, while Mo Walker came off the bench to post 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots. It also helped take the focus off the biggest peripheral storyline going into the game.

No, not the triumphant return of Chip Armelin ... the buzz surrounding the reunion of DeAndre Mathieu and Southern Miss head coach Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall was the head coach at Morehead State two years ago when Mathieu was a freshman walk-on there. The diminutive point guard played in 29 games - starting nine - and averaged 2.9 points and 1.1 assists in 12.8 minutes per game.

Reports vary as to what happened next. Mathieu missed three games that January when his best friend committed suicide, and he told the Minnesota Daily that there were moments when he wasn't sure he wanted to continue playing basketball. But he returned and finished the season strong, playing heavy minutes (23.3 per game in the last six contests) down the stretch.

Tyndall had promised Mathieu a scholarship if he finished in the top eight in minutes played as a freshman. He finished ninth, and Tyndall, citing Mathieu's brief flirtation with hanging up his sneakers, decided he was too much of a risk to merit a free ride. Tyndall reportedly promised a scholarship if Mathieu played one more year as a walk-on, but that wasn't going to cut it for Mathieu, who bolted to Central Arizona.

It was a prescient move, because Tyndall hopped on the next train out of Morehead when Southern Miss came a-calling. And while it all worked out for the best for Mathieu - and the Gophers, clearly - a little extra stress on Tuesday wouldn't be unexpected.

Gophers head coach Richard Pitino tried to defuse the situation by pulling Mathieu aside for a chat before the game.

"The story is pretty interesting," Pitino said. "The credit goes to DeAndre. The blame doesn't go to Donnie Tyndall. He probably wasn't a good enough player at the time. Coach Tyndall's no dummy - he's a very good coach. So the credit goes to DeAndre for what he did in junior college and in the offseason here, continuing to get better.

"It's a story, I understand it," he continued, "but he's mature enough. I didn't think it was an issue at all during the game. I think he handled it really well. I told him, 'Don't make this about yourself. Let's make it about the team.' And I saw that tonight from him."

Mathieu showed a few signs of pressing, the most obvious being a telegraphed pass that Aaron Brown picked off and turned into a coast-to-coast dunk. He ended up with five turnovers and just one assist, though he went 3-for-3 from the floor and scored seven points. In the end, he said the result was all that mattered.

"To know that I played for him and he didn't give me a second chance, and to come out here and beat him, it feels really good," Mathieu said, who added that his season in Morehead is practically ancient history. "It seems like forever ago. I don't even think about it anymore. ... My mom called me today and was like, 'Remember that time he told you in the office ...' and I was just like, 'Mom, it's not even about him anymore. It's about winning this game and going to New York.'"

Pitino has roots in New York - relatives living there, experience coaching there - so he's also thrilled to be getting back to Madison Square Garden. But hidden amid the travel plans and phone calls and Jay-Z tunes is an undercurrent of optimism for a team that's getting meaningful experience in a mostly meaningless tournament.

"What's great about our team - and you don't always see it with a lot of teams, especially high-level teams and high-major teams - is they're really enjoying this," Pitino said. "Playing with passion, playing with pride, understanding not only they don't want their seniors to walk off this court with a loss, but they also understand the growth of this program.

"That's the way Austin Hollins should walk off that court. He was unbelievable tonight and he just deserves success."

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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