NEW YORK – When the Gophers men’s basketball players entered Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, they saw a spotlighted court, engulfed by a yawning, nearly 20,000-seat expanse. The players ogled the collection of New York Rangers and Knicks banners. They snapped pictures with their cellphones of the arena’s spoked, suspended crown.
A handful of them experienced something else, too: a tinge of regret from their last visit.
The Gophers were on that same historic court only two years ago, playing opposite Stanford in the NIT championship game. The team left the floor 24-point losers.
“Being back here kind of brings up those memories,” senior guard Austin Hollins said. “And it does sting — going that far and playing that many games and then losing in the championship. We’ve definitely talked about that, and we know we don’t want that feeling again.”
This time around, the top-seeded Gophers hope to finish the job. They’ll face Southern Methodist in Thursday’s title game.
Minnesota managed to eke out a 67-64 overtime victory against Florida State in Tuesday’s semifinal, taking control early and then regrouping in the extra session despite a shorthanded and outmatched frontcourt.
Starting center Elliott Eliason’s injured left ankle could keep him out once again Thursday. Without him, forward Oto Osenieks could be asked to play again. The junior — who was honored on Senior Day after announcing he wouldn’t play again because of knee injuries — played 32 minutes against the Seminoles after forward Joey King got in quick foul trouble. It was the first Osenieks had played since appearing for less than a minute against Penn State on March 9.
In the championship game, the Gophers won’t have nearly as much size to reckon with as they did with towering Florida State, which ranks third in the nation in average roster height. But SMU could be the most complete team in the NIT field. The Mustangs missed the NCAA tournament by a whisker after dropping their final two regular-season games and their opening-round matchup in the American Conference tournament. SMU’s offense ranks in the national top 70, according to kenpom.com, and its defense lands at No. 17.
To cap that, the Mustangs are led by Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who is quite familiar with his current surroundings. Brown coached the Knicks from 2005-06.
“I’ve always seen him from afar and really admired him,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “More so what he’d done in the NBA was when I was growing up. Now, what he’s doing at SMU just speaks about what type of legend he is.”
After Tuesday’s game, Pitino took some advice from another weathered veteran of midtown Manhattan: his dad.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino sat behind the Gophers bench for Tuesday’s victory, along with Pitino’s mother, Joanne, his brother, Ryan, and various other friends and relatives. In celebration, the elder Pitino — who coached the Knicks from 1987-89 — grabbed a burger with his son after the game and talked shop: what he liked, what he didn’t and a little insight on SMU, which the Cardinals defeated twice this season.
The younger Pitino didn’t wish to share any of the details of that conversation, but there is no doubt he’ll use the information to help usher confidence into a team with plenty of motivation.
Some of the Gophers will experience the NIT title game for the first time. Others want redemption from coming up short two years ago. But for all of them, it feels new.
“Everything is different,” junior guard Andre Hollins said. “Since I’ve already been through it, already experienced it, it’s a lot easier to be a lot more focused. I’ve stayed in the same hotel. It’s been there, done that. So now, it’s more leading and telling the guys we’re here for business. It’s a business trip. We’ve got one more game now, the last 40 minutes of our season, and we’ve got to go out blazing.”