Hollins sends U into NIT final

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2012 - 12:58 AM

 The freshman scored five points in OT to beat Washington and send the U into the NIT final.

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NEW YORK - There is an arc to the learning curve, one that rises steeply and quickly from the flatline; one that builds in a blink.

The moment can happen suddenly, sometimes without warning, and it can change everything.

For a young Gophers team -- one that had played a full season marked mostly by inexperience and underachievement -- that moment came March 3. Being the last game of the regular season, it was too late to earn the team their No. 1 goal -- a NCAA bid.

But in the NIT, the Gophers have made good on a second chance at postseason life. The arc is rising steeply and quickly, and after a 68-67 overtime victory over Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, it brought the Gophers to a new peak: an NIT championship game.

"It's a great feeling to know that we're playing postseason, in some type of championship," sophomore guard Austin Hollins said. "All the hard work that we put in, the offseason, preseason, up to this point -- it's starting to pay off."

Freshman guard Andre Hollins (a team-high 20 points and five assists) scored five points in overtime and the Gophers overcame a rocky second-half and hung on in nail-biting fashion to advance to the title game. The sixth-seeded Gophers (23-14) will face No. 3 seed Stanford (25-11) at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Minnesota had a double-digit lead at halftime at 38-26, but midway through the second half, Washington started to heat up.

"I think they just kind of woke up," said Gophers junior forward Rodney Williams, who had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "We just didn't match their intensity the whole second half like we should have."

After turning the ball over six times in the first half, the Gophers were forced into 13 in the second, and Washington grabbed the momentum. With 22.8 seconds remaining, the Huskies (24-11) cut the lead to two on a pair of Abdul Gaddy free throws, but the Gophers had the ball, needing only to hold on for the victory.

They couldn't quite do that. Joe Coleman tossed a less-than-ideal pass to Andre Hollins, who -- with Washington guard Tony Wroten holding the back of his jersey -- bobbled it out of reach and into the hands of C.J. Wilcox, who scooped it up and scored the tying layup. After one more shot for each team fell short, the Gophers went to their sixth overtime of the year.

"We drew up a play to get the ball in, to hit me running," Andre Hollins said. "Joe got the ball and he shuffled it. It came a little fast. I should have caught it and I should have just ate it up but it slipped out."

But as they've struggled to do so many times this year, the Gophers were able to hold on for the victory. They won their first three games of the NIT -- all on the road against higher seeds -- before scraping by Tuesday.

For his part, Hollins has showed serious progress in the postseason and has quickly transformed into one of the team's leaders, smoothly guiding a more fluid offense while scoring in buckets. The freshman is averaging over 18 points a game in the past eight after breaking double digits only twice during the Big Ten schedule.

Tuesday, he showed it again, hitting four free throws in the final 98 seconds of regulation and guiding the team through overtime for the victory.

"I'm just proud of their perseverance and their ability to overcome," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "It's really just amazing, I've been really amazed at how we've stepped up and just played."

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  • Washington's Desmond Simmons, below, and Minnesota's Andre Hollins (1) fight for a loose ball.

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    Championship: Gophers vs. Stanford • 6 p.m. Thursday, Madison Square Garden, New York • TV: ESPN (1500-AM)

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