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Minnesota defeats Middle Tennessee to reach NIT semis

Minnesota is rolling with three straight road wins to reach Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Minnesota is rolling with three straight road wins to reach Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin aren't the only Big Ten teams still alive in the college basketball postseason. Last night, Minnesota beat Middle Tennessee 78-72 to book a trip to New York for the NIT semifinals. "Getting to New York to play in the Garden is special for anybody," said junior forward Rodney Williams

Williams must have been especially excited to play at Madison Square Garden, as he scored 8 points, including 2 three-pointers, in the game's first four minutes to get the Gophers off to a hot start. Williams continued to score throughout the game to post a career high 24 points on 8 of 11 shooting.

Despite only averaging 12.1 points per game on the season, Williams now has at least 21 points in every NIT game. Just before that, he scored 20 in the regular season finale at Michigan. This surge by Williams may be evidence that his basketball skills are finally catching up to his boundless athleticism. That's a scary thought for other Big Ten teams.

Williams' driving layup with 2:21 left in the game gave Minnesota a 67-58 lead that it would not relinquish.That's not to say the game wasn't close at the end, though.

After MTSU's Raymond Cintron hit a three-pointer with just over seven seconds remaining, the score stood at 74-72 with Minnesota having to inbound the ball in order to hold onto the lead. However, LaRon Dendy let the Gophers off the hook when he slapped the ball out of Williams' hands as he was trying to throw the ball in.

"I had the ball in front of me and I pulled it back," said Williams, who was the inbound man on the play. "He just reached over and slapped the ball out of my hands. Luckily, the ref saw it because it took me a minute to realize what happened."

That's a technical foul that gave Minnesota two free throws and the ball. Once Andre Hollins hit a pair from the line, the game was effectively over.

A couple of strong freshman performances showed that Minnesota could be an even tougher team to deal with next season. Tennessee native Andre Hollins was not shy about showing off his skills to his homestate homies. Hollins shot 7 of 18 from the field and scored 24 points with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. He showed a ton of confidence by not waiting to get open before firing three-pointers, on which Hollins hit 2 of 5.

"It felt homey for me," said Hollins of playing in the Murphy Center, "It was great to come back to Tennessee and play MTSU. It was a great game."

Big man Eliott Eliason also had a solid game with 12 points and 7 boards on 6 of 8 field goals. Combined with the imminent return of Gopher MVP Trevor Mbakwe and the strong play of Williams at the end of the season, youngsters Hollins and Eliason could make Minnesota a very tough out next season.

Of course, we have the whole off-season to project on next season. For now, Minnesota has at least one game left. The Gophers take on Washington this Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York.