NEW YORK – The Gophers men’s basketball team, under head coach Tubby Smith, has stumbled across the finish line in its last two seasons.
This year, however, the team got a chance it wasn’t afforded last year — an opportunity to play in a postseason tournament and extend its season.
Minnesota will play Stanford for the NIT championship Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
For head coach Tubby Smith — whose team is winners of six of its last seven — playing in the NIT finals is a great luxury.
Winning it would mean even more.
“It would be a real bonus,” Smith said. “Because that’s what postseason is; I tell the guys it’s icing on the cake. All the things you’ve done through the season, this is the reward that you earn.”
Traveling for a postseason tournament — even a second-tier one — is good for the players on his roster and the team’s national exposure. Smith even joked how playing well at Madison Square Garden could help the team recruit New York players.
“If you get to this point, you probably deserve this opportunity to compete for a championship.”
It’s a chance that almost didn’t materialize because of the Gophers’ late-game struggles. At least two plays in Tuesday’s semifinal win against Washington had Smith shaking his head on the sideline in apparent disbelief.
One came when Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman fumbled an outlet pass in the backcourt. Washington stole the ball and converted to cut Minnesota’s lead in the waning moments Tuesday.
“I thought the game would have been over a long time ago. We had a couple things that would have iced the game, but we didn’t [get them done],” Smith said. “You’ve got to be strong with the ball. You’ve got to be tougher.”
He added that ball control and limiting turnovers (the Gophers had 21 in the semifinals) would be critical against a Stanford team that likes to score.
The Cardinal (10-8 Pac-12 record) have won five of their last six and are 19-1 when they score at least 70 points.
Stanford won the NIT championship once before, in 1991. Minnesota won it two years later and also in 1998. The latter title was later vacated because of academic violations.
If the Gophers are to add another first-place NIT trophy to their case, they’ll likely draw heavily on Rodney Williams and Hollins.
Williams was great in the first half in the semifinals but faded down the stretch. Hollins picked up the slack in the second half and overtime, but he appeared frustrated after the game with his team’s turnover total. He tied for the team lead with four of Minnesota’s 21 turnovers.
Overall, the freshman has impressed. But he’s still marred at times by inconsistent play that plagues many his age.
“He’s played well,” Smith said of Hollins. “He’s played excellent down the stretch. He’s making his free throws. You want the ball in his hands because he’s making good decisions with it.”
There were times late in Tuesday’s game when the Gophers’ offense stretched the floor and let Hollins take his defender one-on-one. He made several tough shots and got to the free-throw line, where he shot 7-for-7.
Hollins has easily been Minnesota’s most prolific scorer in clutch situations this season despite missing much of it with a nagging ankle injury. He has averaged 18.4 points in his last eight games, many of which were tightly contested in the second half.
Williams has been big for Minnesota in this year’s NIT, and he was huge in Tuesday’s first half. But he faded at the end when foul trouble limited his aggressiveness and tough shots stopped falling.
That magnified Hollins’ importance when he stepped up in the second half and overtime.
Hollins, though, has fewer assists (67) than turnovers (74) for the season. Is the team ready to bestow its full trust in a freshman point guard who has been questioned for his ability to set up his teammates?
Smith said as much at a press conference Wednesday.
Smith called Hollins the team’s best shooter and scorer, and he added: “I think he’s coming closer to becoming a true point guard.”
He said he doesn’t think there is any special formula to why his team is playing better lately; it’s just that all his available players are fully healthy, he said. Teams that are still playing, he said, are the ones with healthy rosters and a true point guard running the show.
Any chance at staying healthy for the season went out the window when Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL in November. But with Hollins’ emergence at point guard in the last few weeks, Minnesota is closing in on an answer to the second part of the equation.
It appears it came just in time for the NIT championship.
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