Richard Pitino said you can ask any coach and they’ll say the first game of the NIT is always the most difficult. Get through that opener — as Pitino’s top-seeded Gophers did in an 88-81 victory over High Point on Tuesday — and then it’s all about momentum.
“More than anything, we found a way to win,” the Gophers men’s coach said Saturday. “And now, moving forward, hopefully each game we’ll build on that momentum.”
Coming off a pair of uncomfortably close wins in their respective opening-round games, both the men’s and women’s teams can test that theory Sunday when they return to Williams Arena for a rare postseason doubleheader.
The men take on St. Mary’s at 2 p.m., followed by the Gophers women against Southern Methodist in the WNIT at 5 p.m. Fans get admission to both games with a single ticket.
The decision for the unique hoops matinee simply came down to scheduling issues, said Chris Werle, the senior associate athletic director for strategic communications. With the girls’ high school state tournament at Williams Arena on Saturday, the Gophers didn’t have many options.
“Given this unique situation, we decided a doubleheader would be a beneficial and fun experience for our fans who already planned to attend both games, as well as those who might not have considered attending both but now can,” Werles said.
The Gophers women needed what coach Pam Borton called a “miracle in a bottle” from star junior Rachel Banham for a two-point win over Green Bay on Wednesday. Banham scored 12 of her 31 points in the final four minutes, including a deep, game-winning three-pointer with 11.1 seconds remaining.
The Gophers men needed a career-high 21 points from senior Maverick Ahanmisi.
Gophers point guard DeAndre Mathieu said he’s hoping the two teams can help each other get some of that momentum his coach talked about. Mathieu played plenty of similar back-to-backs last season at Central Arizona.
“[The] women’s team [at Central Arizona] was really, really good, so it kind of put pressure on us to win games,” he said. “So, we’re going to try to put the pressure on them so hopefully they can pull out a win, too.”