NEW YORK – Elliott Eliason wore a despondent stare.
Once again, the Gophers’ foul troubles had come back to haunt them, and the players’ frustration — in the midst of a frustrating week — was obvious.
With 13½ minutes to play and the Gophers leading 49-42, the backup center was called for a foul when he tried to block St. John’s guard D’Angelo Harrison’s shot at the rim. When he loudly disagreed with an official — who had already warned him for complaining — he was hit with a technical foul as well, leading to a rare five-point play and all the boost the Red Storm needed to push past the sloppy Gophers 70-61 in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.
Minnesota (3-2) will face Georgia (3-2), which lost to No. 10 Gonzaga 88-76 in Wednesday’s late game, in the third-place game at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
Eliason wore the same glum look at the postgame news conference, having to be prompted to speak into the microphone when he trailed off on his first answer.
“Whatever my personal feelings about it were, I was warned twice,” he said of the technical. “It’s a huge mistake, and I’m embarrassed about it frankly. It was a huge turn.”
Minnesota’s mistakes piled up in a game that came 36 hours after the University of Minnesota released a statement about the arrest of sophomore guard Daquein McNeil on two counts of felony assault. The Gophers fouled 24 times. They turned the ball over another 20. They shot only 35.9 percent from the field.
Ultimately, it was too much to overcome. After leading 40-31 at the break, the Gophers committed the same mistakes that hampered them through the first half. Although reserve guard Nate Mason was a bright spot for the Gophers with 15 points and four rebounds, there were bad passes, missed catches, dropped balls and hustle plays on which they never hustled.
“They outrebounded us, they outhustled us, they outscrapped us,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “They were good tonight, and we were just not so good.”
When Eliason’s technical provided an opportunity, St. John’s (4-0) took advantage. After Harrison (19 points, nine rebounds) sank a pair of free throws and Rysheed Jordan (18 points, eight rebounds) made one, Sir’Dominic Pointer rebounded Jordan’s missed free throw and threw it down for a dunk. Suddenly, the Red Storm was within two at 49-47.
Five minutes later, the Gophers gave St. John’s — which shot only 39.7 percent from the field — three chances to take the lead at the line. On the third try, the Red Storm didn’t mess it up. Harrison sank a pair of free throws, redeeming three misses by him and Jordan immediately prior.
Then Harrison pounded what proved to be the nail in the coffin: a four-point play after sinking a shot from the corner and following up with another free throw to give St. John’s a 65-59 lead with 2:27 remaining. The Gophers didn’t respond, going 0-for-4 from the free-throw line and 1-for-5 from the field down the stretch.
“He’s lethal because he can make shots from anywhere,” Pitino said of Harrison, who played all 40 minutes. “Made a big shot when one would think he was tired. So he gritted it out.”