Updated: March 14th, 2012 9:19pm
Rodney Williams anchors Gophers in first round NIT victory at La Salle

Rodney Williams anchors Gophers in first round NIT victory at La Salle

by Nate Sandell
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Rodney Williams made certain the Minnesota Gophers' season didn't end Wednesday in Philadelphia.

The junior forward delivered one of his best performances of the year by tying his career-high with 21 points as the Gophers prevailed, 70-61, in a rollicking first round NIT match-up against Atlantic-10 conference foe La Salle.

In the closing weeks of the regular season, coach Tubby Smith was adamant about the Gophers' desperate need for a consistent go-to scorer.

Williams, at least in the short term, appears to finally be getting the message. Averaging 17.2 points in his last four games, he dunked and drove his way to 17 points in the first half alone, digging the Gophers out of an early deficit on the way to eventually overwhelming the Explorers.

Smith, who recorded his 100th career victory in his five-year tenure at the "U", watched his team avoid a letdown after a disheartening exit in the Big Ten tournament last week put the Gophers' 2011-12 campaign in jeopardy of coming to an abrupt, bitter conclusion.

But the NIT granted them a sixth-seed bid, and so far they are making the most of it. The Gophers are on to the second round of a postseason tournament for the first time since the 2006 season. Williams wasn't alone in double-figures. Austin and Andre Hollins combined 30 points.

"I am impressed," Smith told the Associated Press after the game. "All year long, we've been in every game. Overall, we've been right there. Now, we're starting to make some of these steps."

La Salle held its own against the Gophers for the first 35 minutes, but couldn't find the needed finishing edge in front of its animated home crowd at Tom Gola Arena.

The skinny

Defense was an endangered trait in the first half. Fastbreaks and an array of dunks brought on by defensive lapses highlighted the first 20 minutes.

The Gophers were slow to match the energy level of the upstart Explorers. La Salle, one of the nation's top 3-point shooting teams, didn't shy away from trying to open scoring chances inside as well. Creating numerous opportunities in transition, Earl Pettis and Ramon Galloway motored their squad to a 21-13 lead by the midway point of the half, while the "U" stumbled as result of turnovers and poor shot selection.

But La Salle regressed for a moment and the Gophers responded. Williams provided the spark. He tallied 13 of his 17 first half points in the final 10 minutes, unhinging the Gophers' offense. They locked into a free-flowing closing stretch with the Explorers. The "U" scored eight unanswered points to go up 40-37 at the half.

A dramatic style change took place after the break. Both offenses slowed as the easy scoring lanes that existed in the first half disappeared. As the game took on a more defensive tone, the Gophers traded blows with La Salle until they began to pull away with four minutes to go. Williams' final points of the game -- off a tip-in -- put the "U" up seven and the Explorers gradually went out quietly.

Turning point

The Explorers, while the higher seed, played Wednesday as if they were an underdog. But their energetic and resilient sheen wore off at the end of the second half.

Earl Pettis' jumper brought La Salle within two points at the 6:39 mark. The A-10 upstarts had only one shot from the floor fall from that point on. The Gophers held on thanks to key buckets from Williams and Welch in the last two minutes.

Numbers game

25-12: Gophers' all-time record in the NIT, including games vacated from the Clem Haskins era.

5: Straight games in which Andre Hollins has put up double-figures. He has posted nearly a 18-point scoring average in that stretch.

30: Three-pointers for the Gophers in their last three game, entering Wednesday.

1: Three-pointer made off 11 attempts by the Gophers against La Salle.

Health watch

Smith's prediction didn't come to pass. Senior Ralph Sampson III sat out his fourth consecutive game with a right knee injury, despite indications on Monday that the senior center was progressing steadily towards a return.

Up next

The Gophers are moving on, though they missed their chance at hosting the second round when No. 7 Valparaiso was brought down 66-50 by No. 2 Miami (FL) Wednesday. The "U" will travel to South Beach Monday to face the Hurricanes (8 p.m. 1500 ESPN), with a pass to the quarterfinals up for grabs.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell