Minnesota reaches NIT finalsPublished 9:14am Wednesday, March 28, 2012
NEW YORK — Still alive in late March, Minnesota is finally learning to win the close ones.
The short-handed Golden Gophers improved to 3-3 in overtime games this season, beating Washington 68-67 on Tuesday night in the National Invitational Tournament semifinals behind 20 points from freshman Andre Hollins.
Hollins scored five of Minnesota’s seven points in the extra period. With the shot clock winding down and the Gophers clinging to a one-point lead in the final minute, he banked in an off-balance shot to put Minnesota up 68-65.
“We had to gut it out in overtime,” Hollins said.
The sixth-seeded Golden Gophers (23-14) will face No. 3 seed Stanford in Thursday night’s championship game at Madison Square Garden. The Cardinal beat Massachusetts 74-64 in the first semifinal.
The top-seeded Huskies (24-11), who trailed by 15 late in the first half, sent the game to overtime when C.J. Wilcox stole the ball in the backcourt and hit the tying layup with 16.3 seconds left.
Wilcox had a good look at a potential tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of overtime, but the ball bounced off the rim. Darnell Gant put back the miss to pull Washington within a point, but after Julian Welch missed two free throws with 3.5 seconds remaining, Abdul Gaddy’s desperation shot from beyond midcourt fell well short.
“Any time you’re fighting back, it’s always tough,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. “But in the second half, I thought we were a team.”
The Golden Gophers are making a long NIT run despite losing star forward Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury in their seventh game. Senior center Ralph Sampson III has missed the last six with a sprained right knee.
Minnesota dropped six straight late in the regular season, starting with an overtime loss to Wisconsin.
“We had a tough stretch toward the end of the regular season, but everybody stayed together and everybody is on the same page,” said Rodney Williams, who kept up his strong recent play with 18 points. “Once we got that loss in the Big Ten tournament, we kind of just came together and said, ‘If we get into a postseason tournament, we are going to play our hearts out.’ And that’s what we are doing now.”
Minnesota is looking for its third NIT crown after winning in 1993 and 1998. Stanford won the 1991 title.
“I’m just so proud of their perseverance, and their ability to overcome so many distractions,” Smith said of his team. “Just amazing. … It’s one of the hardest-working groups of kids I’ve ever worked with.”