This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
Read my full game story on Minnesota's 67-64 overtime win here.
Tuesday was the kind of night that Gophers fans had long been waiting to see.
No, Minnesota's semifinal victory over Florida State -- which sends the Gophers to the NIT title game for the second time in three years -- wasn't the tidiest wrap-up. There were plenty of flaws. The Gophers were shorthanded, in foul trouble almost immediately, out-rebounded 40-33 and managed to shoot just 38.9 percent from the field. They also allowed a double-digit first half lead to crumble in the final minutes, when the Seminoles surged back to send the game to overtime on an improbable three-point shot by Devon Bookert.
In spite of all that, Minnesota showed that when the dynamic backcourt is clicking, it can overcome a lot.
DeAndre Mathieu (17 points), Andre Hollins (13 points) and Austin Hollins (17 points) combined to go 7-for-12 from three-point range and proved to be the difference-makers in a true gut-it-out win.
At the beginning of the year, that prospect lent hope to a Minnesota team that had clear flaws elsewhere. Some of those flaws have flipped -- a seemingly shaky frontcourt has emerged as a bonafide strength at times.
But when that asset was stripped away (Elliott Eliason did not play due to a turned left ankle and Joey King played just seven minutes due to foul trouble), it was the guard trio that stepped up.
It hasn't been the case for most of the year.
Those three have each posted double digits on the same night just three other times since the start of the Big Ten slate.
It's no coincidence that all of them (vs. Purdue, vs. Iowa, vs. Penn State) were wins. When the starting backcourt is rolling that smoothly, the Gophers are tough to stop.
"Finally," coach Richard Pitino said. "It hasn't happened much ... I tell you what, at the beginning of the game we showed what we can become offensively. Then we got into foul trouble and we had to change up a lot of things. But we were really tough to guard at the beginning of the game. Things were clicking and when those three guys are clicking, we are hard to guard."
Behind that hot start, Minnesota built a 15-point lead with 6:36 to go in the first half. Floria State found another gear when the Gophers cooled, but it turned out Minnesota needed every bit of that padding.
That high-flying perimeter game only becomes more important against Southern Methodist -- whom Minnesota will play in the championship on Thursday. The Mustangs rank ninth in the nation in two-point defense, and Eliason could be out once again. And once again frontcourt depth will be a concern.
It was less than four months ago that these teams last met, with Florida State traveling to Minnesota and Williams Arena at the start of December.
In some ways, it feels like two very different teams squaring off tonight.
Since their last encounter, the Gophers have morphed. They've mostly discarded their zone defense that effectively shut down the Seminoles in Round One. And the offensive pieces have changed as well. DeAndre Mathieu, who scored just seven points in that contest, has become a major cog in Minnesota's attack. Mo Walker, who was in just his fourth game back (finishing with four points and five rebounds), has also become a critical force inside and a big factor in the Gophers' success.
"He's a different player," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He's playing with a lot more energy. He's playing with a lot more confidence, he's much sure of himself. You watch him on film and he catches the ball and he understands what he's doing. He's not hesitant. And it seems like the players have a lot of confidence in him because they seem to be going to him quite frequently."
This time, however, Minnesota is also likely without Elliott Eliason, who battled foul trouble in the first bout, but had a pair of big blocks.
On the other side, Florida State has picked up its offensive game. The Seminoles have shot threes at a high clip all year, but have become more versatile with getting the ball into the paint. Meanwhile, sophomore guard Aaron Thomas -- Austin Hollins will likely get the cover -- has broken out as of late. Last time around, he finished with five points, three assists and three rebounds. In the last three games, he's averaging 23 points.
"He's playing really well," Mathieu said. "I think he's averaging like 20 over his last five games. He wasn't doing that last time we played them, so he's really stepped his game up and turned into a scorer for them."
Hamilton also noted that his squad, which includes seven second-year players, has simply matured a lot over the course of these four months as well.
Which team has improved the most? Well, that depends on who you ask.
"This experience, the conference play, NIT has helped us grow as a team, and we're playing at a high level right now," Austin Hollins said. "At the same time, Florida State is playing at a high level too. So both teams are different than the last time we played."
In the last four games, Joey King has hit a new stride on the court.
Minnesota will likely need that trend to continue for at least one more game if its to advance.
The Gophers will likely be without starting center Elliott Eliason in tonight's NIT semifinal vs. Florida State (8 p.m. CT tipoff; ESPN2; 1500-a.m.), which puts the onus on King's shoulders.
Backup center Mo Walker is expected to get the start, but the big man has played more than 28 minutes in a single game just once this year. When he sits, the 6-9 King will be the Gophers sole post presence.
Luckily for Minnesota, King walks into Madison Square Garden playing as well as he has in his career. In the last four games, the forward has totaled 61 points, dating back to a 14-point performance in the Gophers' second round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. King had scored in double digits just four other times all season.
A lot of that production has come in pick-and-pop situations. King has found a new shooting touch over the past few weeks, sinking eight three-pointers in the last four games.
"I think it's just a matter of things clicking," Austin Hollins said. "Joey's confidence is at an all-time high right now. He's playing great basketball. He works extremely hard in practice and he deserves it."
King said things are coming more easily than they ever have in college for him.
"It's been a great stetch so far," he said. "I just want to keep playing hard and hopefully we keep winning."
Now, much more will be asked of King tonight. The undersized sophomore will be brushing shoulders with one of the biggest frontcourts in the nation, one accomodating centers Michael Ojo (7-1) and Boris Bojanovski (7-3). Without Eliason, that makes King -- who has blocked nine shots this season -- the last line of defense in the post.
"We don't want Joey at the five, Joey's a little undersized," Hollins said. "But at the same time ... he's a tough kid, so whatever the matchup is, you know he's going to go out there and give it his all."
DeAndre Mathieu said the team focused on physicality drills in Monday's practice at Baruch College in Manhattan.
Pitino has long called King one of the team's hardest and most consistent workers, and one of the most physical as well.
But the size deficit at the 5-spot is hardly the only issue that crops up when Walker sits. With King at the five, the Gophers run short on options at power forward. Charles Buggs is the obvious choice, but he has played more than nine minutes just twice this season and remains very raw. Austin Hollins could also play at the four, giving Minnesota and even smaller look.
Pitino said he hasn't ruled out playing Oto Osenieks, who will forfeit his last year of eligibility next year due to knee issues.
"Oto's career is not done technically," the coach said. "He's been practicing a little bit, he told me yesterday 'Coach if you need me to play, I want to play.' That's not the ideal option either. So it just screws up the frontcourt rotation and then to add on top of it, the tallest team in the county or one of them, so there's just a lot of difficult obstacles for us to overcome."
If the Gophers win on Tuesday, they will advance to the NIT championship game on Thursday, when they would play either SMU or Clemson.
Pitino said on Monday that Elliott Eliason's injured left ankle is not progressing as expected. The starting center likely will miss Tuesday's NIT semifinal.
On Tuesday, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino will face a conundrum.
The top-seeded Gophers are set to tip-off with fellow 1-seed Florida State in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden (ESPN2; 1500-a.m.). The foe is familiar. Minnesota already downed the Seminoles on Dec. 3, when a then-surging Florida State team came to Williams Arena.
Now, Pitino will have to make a critical decision regarding the Gophers' attack.
Does he stick with the successful weapon of the past or lean on the team's best tool of the present?
In that first go-round, Minnesota was able to harness Florida State's physical lineup with Pitino's 2-3 zone. The Gophers dared the Seminoles to shoot and when they did, it wasn't pretty. Their opponent went 2-for-10 from beyond the arc.
It wasn't a leak-less effort -- bigs Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo combined for 17 points and nine rebounds and Leonard Hamilton's bunch gathered 30 points in the paint in all. But it was enough to contain what was then a certain mismatch.
Now potentially shorthanded for Tuesday's reunion, Pitino could be tempted to draw up the same blueprint.
The problem? Minnesota's zone just hasn't been that good for most of the Big Ten slate.
Once Pitino's signature scheme, usage of the zone dropped off about midway through the league slate. Players were having trouble rotating quickly enough when they faced teams with good ball movement. Minnesota was burned repeatedly as opponents easily solved the configuration.
"It's a tough decision," Pitino said. "I think our man has become a lot better and I think we're defending very well."
As the Gophers have adopted man-to-man defense in longer stretches, the overall effort on that end of the ball has picked up. Minnesota has allowed an opponent to make 45 percent of its shots or better just once in the last six games -- albeit against much lighter competition than the Gophers were facing in the Big Ten schedule.
Pitino said he feels the team has raised its defensive effectiveness since the second round of the Big Ten tournament, when Minnesota lost to Wisconsin while handing the Badgers a bevy of easy shots. Wisconsin made 54.5 percent of its shots from the field in that game, including 10 of 24 three pointers.
"The Wisconsin game, not only did we understand that we'll win no games if we play that type of defense, but moving forward for next year -- because we're going to have a lot of key guys back next year -- if we are committed to not being the last guy in the tournament but hopefully getting a good seed in the tournament, this has got to stop," Pitino said. "So it was just good old fashioned hard work, and understanding, more than anything that we will not win that way."
The coach said he plans to use both and make in-game adjustments as necessary, but DeAndre Mathieu said the team had mostly practicing in man-to-man.
"We have a lot of confidence in our man-to-man defense because we've played it so much lately, through different stretches in the season, we'd go man for a while, zone for a while. Lately, it's just been a whole lot of man-to-man defense."
Ultimately, the choice might not matter unless the Gophers can muster some offense.
Although the Gophers' man D has clearly taken the upper hand of the two choices, it's also far from perfect. No matter the approach, Minnesota has been vulnerable around the perimeter all season, allowing opponents to shoot 34.8 percent from that range (that ranks the Gophers 197th nationally, according to kenpom.com). In the Big Ten slate, that figure ballooned to 37.2 percent, worst in the league. And things haven't gotten better, even against lessened competition. In three NIT games, High Point, St. Mary's and Southern Miss have reeled off a stunning 42.4 percent of their offerings from downtown.
Minnesota was able to secure those victories based on limiting shots elsewhere and simply outscoring their visitors. But if Florida State -- which ranks 28th in the nation with a 38.6 average from three-point range -- gets hot from the outside, the Gophers would have a tougher, better all-around team to contend with.
Sunday morning, when Minnesota boarded its charter bound for New York and Madison Square Garden, Austin Hollins had already shed his last signature sweat-drenched home jersey in the Williams Arena locker room.
When the Gophers return from the NIT finale -- whether that's after Tuesday's semifinal against Florida State or whether it's on Friday after the championship -- No. 20's career at Minnesota will be over.
The finality of that still hadn't sunk in as the senior stood around at Bierman Field Athletic Building before practice on Saturday.
"I try not to think about it too much," he said. "I think it will probably set in more once my career is completely over. We're still playing so I haven't thought about it a whole lot ... it's a weird feeling knowing that I'm not going to be playing in the Barn again. Definitely a weird feeling."
His exit could not have been more graceful.
In his last game at home, an 81-73 victory over Southern Miss, Hollins added a career-high 32 points to the 1,253 he had already collected during his four-year stopover. To that total, he added four assists and three turnovers.
Coach Richard Pitino pulled the Germantown, Tenn. native with five seconds on the clock.
Down in the locker room that night, Hollins had no plans to try to top such a moment. He didn't need a midnight solo shootaround to pay his respects to the raised court and musty rafters. The 5,444 fans that night gave him a better sendoff than he could have planned.
"I think that was the best way to say goodbye to it," he said, quietly.
It came amidst a season-ending surge that erased a mid-season slump from fans' minds in timely fashion.
In the last eight games, Hollins is averaging 15.9 points. After managing just 8.5 points a game -- and converting just 13 of 56 shots (23.2 percent) from three-point range in his previous 16, the senior finally perked. It started with a 27-point barrage at home against Iowa, on Feb 25. And with the exception of the Gophers' second-round loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament (five points, two rebounds), he's been hot ever since.
He's filled the stat sheets when they matter the most, playing a major role in keeping Minnesota's season alive.
Next season, Pitino will hope he can wring similar production from one of the incoming guards -- perhaps JUCO Carlos Morris. But the extra digits on the scoreboard are far from the only asset Hollins takes with him as he goes.
"We're going to miss him," Pitino said. "When he's rolling, he's really, really good. But just the intangible part of it. You know when he walks in the gym -- and not that any of our guys are really bad -- but you know he's always going to bring it, he's always going to be positive. Every single rep. Every single drill, he maximizes his potential. That's hard to replace.
"He's a great leader. Defensively he's very, very good. He gets a lot of steals, obviously. He's a calming influence. More than anything you just know that he's calm. Those are things you don't coach. I didn't get that out of him, that's his upbringing, his family and him as a person."
Since joining the Gophers in 2010, an unbending work ethich has marked the lanky wing's reputation, alongside that of his reliable nose for defense.
He's steadily improved each year, going from an average of 4.5 points his freshman year to 9.2 to 10.7 to 12.1 this year. He rebound averages have swelled from 1.5 to 2.8 to 3.2 to 5.1 this year.
His senior uptick comes even after a brutal mid-year sag.
"He was struggling," Pitino said. "It was just very simple. He wasn't making shots. He was cold. And I'm telling you, he just kept going with it. We went on the road ... he was just awful. He comes back the next day in practice. He could have easily tried to hide, and he was the loudest guy, the most vocal guy and he just keeps working and working. He's getting at them and that's the way it should be. For everybody else that watches him, he just deserves success."
Tuesday, he got a nice send-off as well.
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