Austin Hollins said he knew it would come.
Forget that the Gophers men’s basketball team committed 14 turnovers, or that it trailed 14-0 at the start of the game, or that Hollins was without a field goal nearly 32 minutes in. If they kept playing good defense, Hollins said, the offense had to come.
And eventually it did.
Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu hit back-to-back three-pointers midway through the second half to open up an eight-point lead in a 63-55 victory over St. Mary’s in the second round of the NIT on Sunday before an announced crowd of 5,489 at Williams Arena.
It wasn’t pretty, but at this point in the season, style points don’t mean a whole lot.
“Obviously, such a tough start,” said coach Richard Pitino, whose team trailed by double digits after just four minutes and scored only 22 first-half points. “To just find a way to fight back — I thought we did a really great job defensively.”
The Gophers (22-13) will play host to Southern Mississippi in the third round on Tuesday night for the right to play in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Southern Miss roster includes a familiar face in former Gophers guard Chip Armelin.
Joey King scored a team-high 18 points for his third consecutive game in double figures for the Gophers. Mathieu added 14 and Hollins 10.
But it was defense that led the Gophers to the victory.
Elliott Eliason had seven blocks and eight rebounds and held St. Mary’s All-West Coast Conference forward Brad Waldow to three points and two rebounds.
Stephen Holt scored a game-high 24 as the lone player in double figures for the Gaels (23-12).
“Every night, your offense isn’t going to be there, but if you’re defending, you’re always going to give yourself a chance to win,” Hollins said.
Despite a flurry of long-range shots in the second half — the Gophers were 6-for-10 from behind the arc after the break — Minnesota struggled to get into a consistent offensive flow all afternoon.
And the troubles started early.
The Gophers missed their first six shots of the game, turned the ball over six times and trailed by 14 before they hit their first basket — a tough hook in the lane from Mo Walker with 13:11 remaining in the first half.
St. Mary’s started 4-for-5 from the floor before missing 11 of its next 12.
And the Gophers took full advantage. They went on a 19-5 run and trailed just 26-22 at halftime.
Pitino had a simple message at the break.
“Don’t turn the ball over and just defend,” he said. “We have to create our own luck. We found a way to do it.”
The Gophers shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half and took their first lead with 14:53 to play.