Marcus R. Fuller / St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published April 03 2014
Gophers win NIT men's basketball title
The Hollinses’ final season together was bittersweet. The Memphis, Tenn., natives didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament, but they still were able to celebrate their final game together as they helped Minnesota to its third NIT title Thursday night in a 65-63 victory over Southern Methodist at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a great feeling,” Austin Hollins said. “I’ve been through the ups and downs with these guys, and they’re like brothers to me. So to be able to win this championship with this group of guys was amazing.”
Austin Hollins’ last shot in maroon and gold was the go-ahead basket, a clutch 3-pointer with 46 seconds left. The senior guard would win tournament MVP honors with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting and four steals.
Andre Hollins, a junior guard, scored 14 points, including two free throws with 4.8 seconds left for a three-point lead, to seal the Gophers’ first NIT crown since their since-vacated season of 1997-98.
The Gophers (25-13), who also won the NIT in 1993, could be a better team next season, but this was quite the five-game run.
“To send him off as a champion, as an MVP, it’s amazing,” Andre Hollins said of Austin. “Even though we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, we came and took advantage of the opportunity that God gave us. I would have been devastated if we lost this game.”
The Mustangs (27-10) were the darlings of the experts as the biggest NCAA tournament snub this year, especially with former NBA coach Larry Brown gaining national attention in his return to college basketball.
But after the disappointment of failing to make the NCAA tournament in the first year under coach Richard Pitino, Minnesota kept its focus on returning to New York, where it lost in the NIT final under Tubby Smith in 2012 in a blowout to Stanford.
Smith won an NCAA tournament game last season. But the 60-year-old coach was fired after six seasons.
At 31, Richard Pitino’s coaching career is just getting started – and there appears to be a lot more potential for the program to grow moving forward. This season set a school record for wins, since the 1997 Final Four run was vacated.
Pitino’s Hall of Fame father, Rick, won the NCAA title a year ago with Louisville. But he was beaming with his wife, Joanne, celebrating the NIT triumph on Thursday night on the same court where his son watched him coach the Knicks in the 1980s.
“They started what I think is going to be something special at Minnesota – a new era,” Rick Pitino said. “It always starts with a group that sacrifices.”
After the team cut down the nets following the championship ceremony, Pitino gathered his players together to share an intimate moment.
“I just said to them, ‘Listen, anytime there’s a coaching change, it’s always difficult’,” he said. “They have really, really embraced me. They are great kids. They have got great families. The guys that were left over, certainly that’s a testament to Coach Smith and his staff, what they did.”
Pitino inherited seven players on this NIT championship team from Smith, including the Hollinses, Elliott Eliason, Mo Walker and Oto Osenieks. But the players he brought in were just as crucial, especially starters DeAndre Mathieu and Joey King.
SMU led by as many as seven points in the second half, but Mathieu’s free throws followed by a steal and layup from Austin Hollins gave Minnesota a 57-54 lead with 1:52 left.
The Mustangs answered when Nick Russell nailed a three-pointer to tie the score on the ensuing possession.
In Tuesday’s semifinals, Minnesota blew a chance to win in regulation when Malik Smith missed two free throws and Florida State’s Devon Booker sent the game into overtime with a 3-pointer. But the Gophers were able to hang on Thursday with some clutch shooting of their own.
King, who fouled out against Florida State, stayed out of foul trouble and hit two free throws for a 59-57 lead at 1:14.
SMU’s Nic Moore tied the score, but then came Austin Hollins’ dagger shot.
“It was a great feeling,” he said. “I can’t even describe it. It’s indescribable.”
Pitino: “Big-time shot. That’s the way he should have walked away as a Gopher.”
The Gophers lose their all-time leader in games played, Austin Hollins, next season, but four starters could return, including Andre Hollins and his new backcourt mate Mathieu. They combined for 27 points, nine assists and three steals Thursday.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Mathieu said. “I know this is not the NCAA tournament, but this feels so good.”
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