NEW YORK – One by one they climbed the ladder Thursday night, claiming their snippet.
For some, it was redemption. For others, it was just a party.
Two years after falling just short of its goal at Madison Square Garden, a Minnesota basketball team — composed of veterans from that game and fresh faces from this year — made good on its second chance.
Minnesota gained control of a back-and-forth match with Southern Methodist — the first team out of the NCAA tournament field — in the final seconds. Pushing to the finish on a flurry of transition shots and a couple of big shots, the Gophers claimed the 65-63 victory and then pranced to midcourt in one mass, eager to collect their “NIT Champions” T-shirts. Soon, they would cut down the nets as James Brown’s “I Got You” blared.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” senior guard Austin Hollins. “We’ve been here before, and we know what it feels like to be the other team walking off the floor, losing. We made it a point once we got into the NIT that we wanted to go win a championship.”
He finished with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, four steals and a trophy all his own, after being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Minnesota (25-13) last won the NIT in 1998, a title that has since been vacated. The 25 victories are officially a school record for a single season.
For first-year coach Richard Pitino, it was a positive stamp on a new tenure. After his team narrowly missed the NCAA field, he notched the next best thing in front of several members of his family. The group included his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who sat behind the bench, hollering and waving at Minnesota players throughout as if he could sub in as coach at any moment.
“This is hopefully just the beginning for me,” the younger Pitino said. “To be able to do this in Year 1 at Minnesota, in a place that I love — and they all know how much I brag about it — it was great for them to see.”
Austin Hollins gave the Gophers the lead for good against SMU (27-10) with a rainbow from the right corner: the last shot attempt of his college career, a three-pointer to put Minnesota up 63-60 with 46.1 seconds on the clock.
Junior guard Andre Hollins, Austin’s longtime partner in the backcourt, then started screaming.
“That might have been the most excited I’ve ever gotten for a shot ever in a game,” he said. “I was just yelling. Coach was trying to run a play, and I was still yelling. It was amazing, that’s how excited I was.”
Andre Hollins, who finished with 14 points, hit three of four free throws in the final 16 seconds to seal it.
The Gophers trailed 53-46 with 5:53 to go, SMU’s largest lead to that point, when Minnesota started to string together a final push.
Transition layups by DeAndre Mathieu (13 points, seven assists) and Austin Hollins were capped by Mo Walker spinning in the paint for his first basket of the game to tie the score 53-53 with 4:37 remaining, setting up another back-and-forth battle until Hollins’ clutch three-pointer.
In all, the seesaw match featured 17 lead changes and 14 ties.
“We’re a persistent team,” Mathieu said. “We worked so hard all year, we didn’t expect anything else but to just keep fighting.”
Center Elliott Eliason, who missed Tuesday’s semifinal game against Florida State because of an ankle injury, played eight minutes but was clearly hobbling. Same with forward Oto Osenieks, who surprised by coming off the bench to play 32 minutes against the Seminoles after announcing he wouldn’t play next season because of knee injuries. The junior played six minutes Thursday but was limping.
It was enough.
The Gophers, who return all but one starter next season, were at this pinnacle two years ago before crumbling against Stanford in the title game. Minnesota received an NCAA tournament bid last year, winning only its first game against UCLA.
Thursday, it might as well have been the latter. Pictures were snapped. Hugs were given and received. Players sprinted off, mid-interview, overwhelmed by their excitement in winning a national title.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Mathieu said, looking close to crying as well. “It’s like the best feeling. I know it’s not the NCAA tournament, but this feels so good … We’re going to all hopefully have a big summer and hopefully make a run in the big-boy tournament next year.”