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Gophers guard Austin Hollins (20) stole the ball from Southern Mississippi's Jeremiah Eason on Tuesday in Minneapolis.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

NIT QUARTERFINALS Gophers 81, Southern mississippi 73  Up next: 6 or 8:30 p.m. Tuesday vs. Florida State or Louisiana Tech • TV: ESPN2 (1500-AM)

Gophers prevail over Southern Miss, head back to New York

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO
  • Star Tribune
  • March 26, 2014 - 9:33 AM

Outside the Gophers men’s basketball locker room, even the walls of Williams Arena’s underbelly pulsated.

Above, the modest but noisy crowd announced at 5,444 celebrated; in the showers, Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blared.

What started with disappointment has morphed into accomplishment: The Gophers are headed back to New York.

After a slow start, they ran past a scrappy Southern Miss team 81-73 for their third consecutive victory, this one to advance to the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden for the second time in three years.

This isn’t where the Gophers hoped they would be a week and a half ago, but it’s not a bad consolation prize.

“Our goal is not to make the NIT, but it is to consistently win at a high level,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re trying to build something. This is Year 1 for me, and I’m putting in a whole new stamp and a whole new culture and it’s just different … as you continue to build in Year 1, to get to 23 wins and to have the opportunity to play in the Garden to continue to try to hopefully win a championship with a lot of guys back next year is huge for the development of our program.”

The Gophers (23-13) will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Florida State and Louisiana Tech. The Gophers advanced all the way to the NIT title game in 2012 before losing to Stanford 75-51.

Sheer childlike joy took over the locker room after the Gophers — boosted by a career-best 32-point performance from Austin Hollins — closed their season of home games at Williams Arena with a victory.

Players piled around the edges of the media scrum at Hollins’ locker, and Kendall Shell climbed onto a cubby next to his, nudging his head above the rest and extending his cellphone in mock reporter fashion.

“You’ve had a lot of great games here,” Shell said, “Where does this game rank for you?”

Hollins, trying to swat his teammate away, replied “top five for sure” as a herd of players yelped behind him.

In his 139th game with the Gophers, Hollins set career highs in points and three-pointers (six). He also went 10-for-10 at the free-throw line to help fight off a final Southern Miss rally.

“It just seemed like the basket was the size of the ocean,” forward Joey King said of Hollins.

In general, what the Gophers missed in execution, they made up for in style.

They trailed by nine early in the first half, but a late surge put them up 44-40 at halftime.

The Gophers shot 50 percent from the floor and made 10 three-pointers, blowing past a Southern Miss team that kept them out of the interior with its pressure zone and hit nine threes of its own. King added 15 points, his fourth consecutive game in double-digit scoring.

Neil Watson scored 16 points for the Golden Eagles (29-7) and Daveon Boardingham had 15.

“We’re well-coached,” guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “Coach stays on top of us, he makes sure that we’re going to play hard. He said no more letdowns. He didn’t want us to be remembered as the team that lost by 26 in the conference tournament.”

Instead, they will have a chance to be one of only a few teams in the nation to finish the season with a victory.

Tuesday night, the Gophers celebrated that prospect. They weren’t in the Big Dance, but they certainly were dancing — some strange, unbridled, youthful jig, occasionally interrupted to punch a teammate, screech loudly or run in circles.

“Just wait until you guys walk out,” Hollins said.

 

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