Minnesota didn't appear to have any sort of momentum going into the NIT this season. It had lost six regular season games in a row before finally defeating Nebraska at home in the last game before the postseason. The Gophers beat Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, but at the moment the game felt more like a Northwestern loss than a Minnesota win. After losing to Michigan in the second round in Indianapolis, Minnesota was quite a long shot to go far in the NIT.
It's amazing what a little camaraderie and determination can do. The Gophers won on the road at La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee before defeating Washington 68-67 in Madison Square Garden last night.
"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."
It's really amazing how far Williams and teammate Andre Hollins have raised their games since the start of postseason play. The 18 points Williams scored put a stop to his streak of four straight 20-point games that started with the loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tourney. Tuesday night's game was the also the first NIT game in which Williams shot under 50 percent. The junior forward "only" shot 8 of 17 from the field with 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Hollins, meanwhile, was a minor factor for most of the season before blowing up just as the regular season was ending. With the 20 he scored against Washington, Hollins now has at least that many points in 4 of his last 6 games. By scoring his team's last 13 points of the game, Hollins showed he is more than capable of putting Minnesota on his back if he needs to.
It didn't have to be so difficult for the Gophers, though. Tubby Smith's crew shot 51.6% in the first half en route to a 12-point lead. The trouble came in holding onto that edge. The second half saw Minnesota turn the ball over 11 times and allow Washington to grab 11 offensive rebounds. Add to that Minnesota's 30.4% second half field goal rate, and it's not surprising that Washington was able to come back.
Still, Minnesota had a 61-59 lead with the ball and only 22 seconds left at the end of the second half. While trying to break the Washington press, Joe Coleman's hand-off pass to Hollins went awry and Washington's C.J. Wilcox picked up the loose ball and threw in a layup to tie the game. Hollins had a chance to retake the lead with a straight-on 18-foot jumper, but he caught all iron. On the other end, Tony Wroten only had time for a 30-foot prayer that very nearly went in for a Huskies victory. Instead, the game went to overtime.
With 1:16 remaining in the extra period, Hollins wove through the Washington defense before finishing with a beautiful kiss off the glass to give Minnesota a 66-63 lead. After an exchange of two-point buckets, Wilcox misfired on his attempt to tie the game with seven seconds left, and Minnesota was able to hold on.
The Golden Gophers will go for the NIT championship on Thursday night, when they take on Stanford.