Early Wednesday morning the Minnesota Golden Gophers finally quelled the Florida State Seminoles second half uprising for good. The Gophers won 67-64 in overtime at Madison Square Garden to earn a chance to play for an NIT title on Thursday night against Larry Brown and SMU.
For Minnesota and coach Pitino, the game came easy in the first 10 minutes. Easy was nowhere to be found after that.
With 6:21 left in the first half the Gophers led 28-13, the biggest lead either team would hold all game. Minnesota's shots were falling at an unsustainable rate. Deandre Mathieu, Joey King, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins all drained their first three-point attempts with nary a hand in their face. The Gophers were pitching a perfect game until a miss finally came almost seven minutes into the game.
When the inevitable cool down came the Gophers would need to find other ways to score against an imposing Seminole frontcourt. The adjustment period was a harsh one.
The Gophers had a difficult time finding easy buckets in the paint against 7-foot-1 Michael Ojo, 7-foot-3 Boris Bojanovsky and hyperactive 6-foot-9 forward Okaro White.
While the Gophers found scoring a challenge after a hot start the Seminoles were similarly hapless on the offensive end all half. The Gophers shot 7-for-14 on three-pointers and scored 18 points off 11 sloppy turnovers by Florida State. Despite only managing two points in the final six minutes of the half the Gophers took a 30-20 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The second half saw the Seminoles claw their way back possession-by-possession, finally gaining a brief lead on two White free throws with 4:10 left in the second half, 51-50. Florida State exposed the Gophers in the paint, attacking and creating foul trouble for Minnesota's bigs, slowly chipping away while Minnesota's offense continued its sporadic play.
With Joey King fouled out and Mo Walker one foul away from suffering the same fate, the Gopher defense was susceptible. White pounced, utilizing his size to get close looks and free throw opportunities. Senior Ian Miller nailed two back-to-back big threes when Gopher defenders sagged off him, hoping to prevent driving opportunities.
Recently eliminated Lousiville coach Rick Pitino, sitting in the stands, was helpless as he watched his sons team fade.
Despite the second half Seminole surge the Gophers were still in position to win with under ten seconds left.
Golden Gopher senior guard Malik Smith slowly stepped to the line with eight seconds left in the second half, prepared to shoot two free throws. All he had to do was hit one to put a 60-57 game out of reach for good. He clanked both. Seminole senior forward Okaro White -- who didn't want his college career to end just yet either -- grabbed the rebound and handed it over to Devon Bookert.
In the span of eight seconds Minnesota's 15 point first half lead, its 6-for-6 start from the field and its 10 point halftime lead all ceased to matter anymore. Booker raced down the court, raised up from the top of the three-point arc and launched a floating jumper over Smith -- man, what a rough eight seconds this kid had -- to tie the game at 60-60 with 0.3 seconds left.
The Mecca of Basketball demanded more action, and more it would have.
Overtime was spirited, but sloppy. Florida State made one field goal, Minnesota none.
Despite shooting 0-for-5 in overtime Walker nailed six free throws and An. Hollins chipped in one. That would be enough. Coach Pitino would finally ease up as he watched Ian Miller's final three-point attempt slide off the rim.
After starting 6-for-6 from the field, including 4-for-4 from three-point range, the Gophers made only 15-of-48 shots the remainder of the game. Fortunately for Minnesota the Seminole offense was in a funk all night, hitting on just 20-of-52 shots.
Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu led the way for Minnesota, pouring in 17 points apiece. Five different Gophers hit from three on the night, a pivotal factor in the win.
For the Seminoles, seniors Ian Miller and Okaro White played like men on death row, with one game left to live. Miller poured in 16 off the bench while White had 16 points, 12 rebounds (5 offensive) and two blocks.
Had just one or two more Seminole three-point attempts -- many of them good looks -- fallen, this game could very well have gone a different way. On nights the shots aren't falling good teams find a way to grit it out. The Gophers gritted just a bit more tonight.
Tonight, Pitino and the Gophers stepped into the Mecca and earned their keep. They'll have one more night to prove they belong.