Red-hot Austin Hollins propels Gophers to another NIT victory

It might not be the NCAA tournament, but another deep run in the NIT is something the Gophers sounded excited about following Tuesday's win. Austin Hollins led the way for Minnesota on Tuesday, scoring 32 points.

Tom Olmscheid/Tom Olmscheid/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — Austin Hollins and his Gophers teammates went to New York City two years ago and came back empty handed when they lost in the NIT championship.

Hollins made sure he had one last chance to win a trophy in the Big Apple.

Thanks to a career-high 32 points by the Gophers senior, Minnesota topped Southern Miss by an 81-73 final in Tuesday’s NIT quarterfinal at Williams Arena. With the win, Hollins and Minnesota advance to the NIT semifinals, which will be held in Madison Square Garden in New York.

For the second time in three years, the Gophers are New York bound.

"It feels good," said point guard DeAndre Mathieu. "We’ve got a chance to win a championship."

Minnesota was in this same position at the end of the 2011-12 season, when it made a run in the NIT. The Gophers did so two years ago by winning three games on the road before making the trip to New York. This time around, however, Minnesota had a chance to play three games in front of their home fans at Williams Arena.

There’s no doubt the players are excited for a trip to New York. After the game, Jay-Z’s "Empire State of Mind" blared from the speakers in the locker room as several players danced. It might not be the NCAA tournament, but another deep run in the NIT and the chance to play at one of basketball’s most historic arenas isn’t a bad consolation prize.

"The goal, obviously, we’ve talked about it all the time is certainly to be in the NCAA tournament," said first-year head coach Richard Pitino. "But I think more than anything, what’s great about our team — and you don’t always see it with a lot of teams, especially high-level teams — is they’re really enjoying this, playing with passion, playing with pride."

After Minnesota got off to a slow start for the second time in as many games, it was the hustle and hot shooting of the senior Hollins that got the Gophers back into it.

Trailing 33-25, Hollins nailed a 3-pointer to cut into Southern Miss’ lead. After a basket by the Golden Eagles, Hollins responded by draining yet another three — and drawing a foul to convert a rare four-point play. In a span of 30 seconds, Hollins scored seven points to give Minnesota a big boost.

Gophers 81, Golden Eagles 73

But Hollins wasn’t done as he made sure his final game in the Barn was a memorable one. He connected again from downtown to tie the game at 35 and made a baseline jumper to give the Gophers their first lead since they were up 2-0.

In four consecutive trips down the court, Hollins scored 12 points and helped Minnesota turn an eight-point deficit into a two-point lead.

"That’s big time," said point guard DeAndre Mathieu. "He’s just been working really hard. Since he went through that slump, he’s been probably the best player on the team every game. It’s big time. He’s a senior. He doesn’t want it to end, and that’s what coach Pitino wants."

Hollins scored 18 of his career-high 32 points in the first half and was a perfect 10-for-10 at the free-throw line — nine of which came after halftime. Pitino took Hollins out of the game with 4.6 seconds left, and he left to a standing ovation from the crowd of 5,444.

After the game, Hollins admitted it hadn’t really sunk in yet that he’d played at Williams Arena for the final time. He’ll have plenty of time to think about that later. For now, he and the Gophers have more work to do.

"We’re still playing games," Hollins said. "I think that was the best way to say goodbye tonight."

The Gophers were on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble and instead settled for an invitation to the NIT as a No. 1 seed. But given the inexperience of some of the players on this team — as well as the 31-year-old head coach — playing more games during a lengthy postseason run could prove to be more beneficial than a one-and-done trip to the NCAA tournament.

Now, as the Gophers head to the bright lights of the Big Apple, they’ll have a chance to continue to take steps forward that they hope will carry into next season.

"What I loved to see more than anything is that all these guys have gotten better," Pitino said. "The guys who are going to be here next year, you want them to end on a good note. But those seniors . . . you want them to end on the right note."

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