Gophers overcome slow start to put away St. Mary’s

The 18 points by Joey King were the most for the Eagan, Minn., native since the first game of the season against Lehigh when he scored 20.

Paul Battaglia/Paul Battaglia/Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The game seemed over before it was even five minutes old.

Minnesota couldn’t make a shot and couldn’t hang onto the ball. St. Mary’s couldn’t miss and held its own on defense. The result was a 14-point deficit for the Gophers before they scored a single point, a fact that had the fans at Williams Arena growing restless.

One look at the 63-56 final score in Sunday’s NIT game and you’d guess that the team that began in a 14-0 hole was the same one that came out on the losing end. But Minnesota wasn’t about to let its season end, not even after a brutally slow start.

The Gophers finally found a rhythm on offense, stepped up the defensive intensity, and stopped turning the ball over. The end result was a seven-point win against the Gaels to set up an NIT quarterfinal game Tuesday back at Williams Arena.

"You’ve got to keep your heads up. You can’t quit," senior Austin Hollins said of his team’s early deficit. "It’s early in the game. We were turning the ball over.  . . . We were able to take care of the ball and defend and that’s why we got back into the game."

Gophers 63, Gaels 55

Minnesota didn’t score its first point until there was 13:10 left in the first half. Mo Walker’s layup finally got the Gophers on the board after a long scoring drought. From there, Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu scored as part of a quick 6-0 run, and Joey King connected from downtown to cut St. Mary’s lead to 16-11.

Slowly but surely, Minnesota’s confidence grew. The Gophers insisted, however, that their confidence never waned on the bench, even in the face of some early adversity.?

"No panic, because we knew we were going to have to fight regardless," said Mathieu, who finished with 14 points. "It was a lot of basketball to play, so we knew we were going to have to fight or we were going to get blown out on our home court in our last game. We couldn’t allow that."

By the time the horn sounded at halftime, the Gaels’ 14-0 lead was a thing of the past. Minnesota trailed by just four, 26-22, heading into the locker room at the break. After committing six turnovers before scoring their first point, the Gophers had just one turnover the rest of the half.

"I thought we ended the half the right way," said head coach Richard Pitino. "We just talked about at halftime, ‘Don’t turn the ball over and just defend. Let’s create our own luck.’ We found a way to do it. I’m happy for these guys."

Minnesota was an entirely different team in the second half, even with Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, two of the team’s three leading scorers, struggling offensively for a good part of the game. That’s where Mathieu and King stepped up to fill the scoring void.

King finished the game with a team-high 18 points, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range. He seemingly had an answer every time St. Mary’s tried to claw its way back. His second 3-pointer of the night came right after Gaels guard Stephen Holt — who had a game-high 24 points in the loss — cut Minnesota’s lead to 43-39.

"It was a big-time performance from Joey," Mathieu said. "Every time it seemed like they would get back or try to make another run to push the lead out, Joey made a big shot."

Photos of the Week: 3/16/14-3/23/14

The 18 points by King were the most for the Eagan, Minn., native since the first game of the season against Lehigh when he scored 20. King has been big for the Gophers in their first two NIT games, as he also had 14 points in a win against High Point. He’s averaged 16 points in Minnesota’s last three games.

"Things are going really well right now," King said. "The ball’s coming out of my hand really well. I’m shooting it well."

As Minnesota erased St. Mary’s early 14-0 lead en route to a win, the Gophers brought themselves one step closer to a trip to New York City. Minnesota now plays the winner of Southern Miss and Missouri on Tuesday night at Williams Arena, with the winner earning a spot in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Back when the Gophers trailed by 14 points, an NIT Final Four seemed a long ways away. Now thanks to Sunday’s comeback win, there’s just one more victory standing between Minnesota and the Big Apple.

"You want to play in the greatest arena in all of sports, the mecca of college basketball and get your coach back to his roots a little bit," said Pitino, who grew up on the East Coast. "And more than anything, do you love the game or not? The good thing for these guys is they do love the game. It’s fun to coach that."

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