In a game that felt like it would never end, and with a clown car of announcers and color commentators talking about anything other than the game in front of them, the Gophers overcame a back-breaking end of regulation to rebound and take care of Florida State in OT in the NIT semifinals, 67-64.
With the game well in hand heading into the final 10 seconds of regulation, Malik Smith, perhaps the team’s best free throw shooter, clanked two attempts, resulting in utter panic and an open three point attempt from FSU. Of course, the shot went in, forcing overtime and prolonging a game that had already fallen victim to several reviews, rule fact-checks and foul calls.
Luckily for the Gophers, the Seminoles didn’t want to win the game either, and even with the Gopher big men either injured (Elliott Eliason) or facing foul trouble (Joey King and Mo Walker), Minnesota responded in OT by executing at the line and sneaking away with the victory. In fact, Minnesota’s size problem was so bad that Oto Osenieks had to come out of retirement just to add some bodies to the lineup.
The Gophers actually came out completely on fire, making their first six shots and jumping out to a 12-point lead, which eventually stretched to 15. But the shooting would take a 180, with the Gophers actually giving up the lead late in the game. Even behind more hot shooting from Austin Hollins and a sneaky 17 points from Drizzy Mathieu, the Gophers were never in position to put the Seminoles away. Foul trouble and a lack of size due to the absence of Eliason made things extremely difficult on the defensive end. FSU, though, was unable to capitalize due to its own shortcomings on offense, and never really succeeded from the field, shooting only 38 percent including going 4-18 from deep.
Now the Gophers find themselves in the NIT championship against an upstart SMU team feeling plenty snubbed by the NCAA selection committee.
Deja vu? It certainly feels like it. Not 24 months ago the Gophers were riding a similar wave of late season heroics that saw them win four straight games and head to their first NIT championship since 1998. It was a different feeling two seasons ago as the Gophers came into the season with fairly high expectations, and had the rug pulled out from under them with a disastrous Trevor Mbakwe knee injury early in the season.
The 2012 NIT run would not end in a championship, as the Gophers got smoked by Stanford, but it would go on to pay dividends the following year, as the jelling that occurred during the late season run put the team miles ahead of where it would have ordinarily been in 2013.
This year, the Gophers didn’t have high expectations to start the season. In fact, they were fairly low. As such, the current NIT run to the championship feels more like an achievement, rather than a snarky punishment. And a championship would be a nice feather in the cap for Richard Pitino in his first season.
If nothing else, the string of five extra games gives Pitino his own learning opportunities and gives the players, many of whom will be playing with each other again next year, time to get more practice under their belts against legitimate competition and set the stage for cohesion next year.
Celebrating being in the championship of the NIT might be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the reality is that there are only a handful of college programs currently playing together, and for a fairly young team that can use all the game experience it can get, each game is huge in the experience department. Consider that the Gophers have now beaten four straight teams that had legitimate aspirations of being in the NCAA tournament. That’s some decent competition, and a reason to at least sort of appreciate the position the Gophers are in.