ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Expectations internally for the Gophers men's basketball team were much higher than outside the program entering this season.
A consensus among college hoops observers was Ben Johnson's first year as Minnesota's coach wouldn't see many victories, but players used those doubts as motivation.
With a chance to prove themselves in the Asheville Championship, the Gophers improved to 3-0 en route to the tournament title behind Payton Willis' career-high 29 points in an 87-80 double-overtime victory Sunday night against Princeton at the Cherokee Center.
Willis, who returned to Minnesota after transferring to the College of Charleston last year, was named tournament MVP. But the senior guard gave all the credit to the resolve of his teammates, who outlasted a solid Princeton team to celebrate with the championship trophy together at center court.
"We'll continue to have a chip on our shoulder," said Willis, who helped lead the Gophers to their first preseason event title since the Vancouver Showcase in 2018. "We'll probably still be celebrating tonight, but when we get back to practice, these wins don't matter for the next game. We have to get back to it."
In the second overtime, Willis' three-pointer helped the Gophers grab the momentum with a 77-72 lead. The Tigers clawed back to make it a three-point game, but Willis responded with four straight points to widen the margin, including two free throws with 37 seconds left.
The Gophers squandered a chance to seal the game in regulation when they shot just 8-for-17 from the foul line, and they were 7-for-12 in overtime on free throws.
"We allowed ourselves to get tired," Johnson said on missed free throws. "Despite all that, to see them stay in it and battle was impressive."
Princeton's Jaelin Llewellyn slashed through Minnesota's defense for a game-tying layup at 59-59 with 22 seconds left in regulation. Llewellyn, who finished with 19 points, came through in the clutch again for the Tigers (2-1) to end the first overtime with an acrobatic finish to make it 72-72.
Johnson's undefeated start might seem like a surprise, but the Gophers have gained confidence after rallying to hold off late furious comebacks by their first three opponents, including Missouri Kansas City and Western Kentucky.
Western Kentucky was a three-point favorite Friday, but the Hilltoppers trailed by as much as 16 points in the second half. Even when it was down to a two-point game with three seconds remaining, the Gophers managed to escape 73-69 to advance to the Asheville Championship final.
"We're going to be in a lot of games like this," Johnson said. "The biggest thing is when adversity hits, what are you made of? We talk about that every day."
Jamison Battle scored 14 of his 24 points in the first half, and he sparked an 11-0 run that helped the Gophers turn a deficit into a 38-30 lead at halftime. Battle was also on the all-tournament team.
The Tigers advanced to face Minnesota after hitting 11 threes in a 66-62 win Friday against South Carolina. They shot 6-for-28 from beyond the arc Sunday but outscored Minnesota 56-44 in the paint.
The Gophers have a chance to keep their momentum going by playing back-to-back home games against Fort Wayne and Jacksonville. The biggest tests will follow in the U's first true road games this season at Pittsburgh and Mississippi State.
After being picked to finish last in the Big Ten in the preseason, the Gophers arguably are already overachieving by leaning heavily on experience.
The Gophers were bracing for a massive rebuild, but six of their 10 newcomers were senior transfers. That makes them the second most experienced team (2.75 years average) in the Big Ten, per Kenpom.com.
That experience was critical down the stretch Sunday when the Gophers finally lost a double-digit lead in the second half, which they avoided in the first two wins this season.
"I think our guys are embracing the grit," Johnson said. "They're embracing the grind. They're embracing the mental toughness it takes to win … and that's kind of becoming our identity."