NEW YORK – The Gophers' season ended with a whimper Thursday when they dropped their season finale at Madison Square Garden. No. 3 seeded Stanford defeated Minnesota 75-51 to win the NIT championship.
Despite the shellacking, second place in a second-tier tournament was an accomplishment considering where the team was a month ago.
Then, Minnesota was in a tailspin after dropping six straight conference games and was already on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament and possibly even the NIT.
Now, the Gophers made good on their bid and marched through the tournament as a No. 6 seed.
Thursday’s loss meant the tournament had a bittersweet after taste. Before the championship, the tournament was a success story for Minnesota.
But Thursday’s loss stung. And the team looked helpless for most of the second half.
“It’s hard… to lose one like this,” freshman point guard Andre Hollins said. “It’s just a tough one to swallow.”
The team answered some year-long questions in their first four NIT games, though. It found Rodney Williams could at times be counted on to shoulder the scoring load. Hollins looked comfortable running the team in big moments in the NIT, and took a step toward completing his transition from shooting guard to point guard.
He played his worst game of the tournament Thursday with 4 points, no assists and 5 turnovers – a performance he called “unacceptable for a point guard.”
Guard Joe Coleman, who had 10 points, said the Cardinal scouted a few plays the Gophers had drawn up for Williams and Hollins and anticipated them well enough to shut them down.
Without Williams (zero second-half points) or Hollins making plays, Minnesota (23-15) came up short and seemed to lose control of the game as things unraveled in a sloppy second half.
Coleman said the Gophers struggled because they hadn’t seen a defense as intense Stanford’s this year.
“[Stanford] did a good job of really getting up under us, being physical, and I thought that was the difference,” head coach Tubby Smith said.
The game was physical and the environment in the arena contentious for much of the second half.
Stanford forward Dwight Powell drove the lane with Williams defending him with just less than 12 minutes remaining. Stanford already led by 15, and Powell went to his right and attempted a layup, but Williams fouled him.
Officials used replay to confirm what Gophers coaches and fans alleged – that Powell used a forearm bar and cold clocked Williams in the nose. Williams was down for several moments and was walked off the floor by a trainer. He later returned, but by then, the outcome had already been decided.
It wasn’t long after that the game became a blowout.
Minnesota’s body language told the whole story in the second half: sluggish, disoriented and defeated. Things looked worse when compared to a Stanford team that played faster, more aggressive and more physical.
The Gophers team that showed up for Thursday’s championship didn’t much resemble the team that had rattled off four straight NIT wins to get to that point.
Hollins and Williams expressed disappointment afterward, but said the team’s run sets it up well for next season.
“We would be foolish just to go into next season thinking about this one game,” Hollins said. “We have come along as a team throughout this year … I think this tournament helped us a lot.
Players afterward said they felt the team played well but Stanford was just on a tear.
“Those guys, they just had it going out there tonight,” Williams said. “We definitely had some lapses on defense but we were right there in their face and they made some tough shots.”
For Stanford (26-11), it was the team’s second NIT title. It also won in 1991.
The Gophers had won two NIT titles previously. Its 1998 championship was vacated for academic fraud. Its one-point win over Georgetown in 1993 still stands.
Minnesota again played without Ralph Sampson III (knee) and Oto Osenieks (concussion).
Elliot Eliason battled flu-like symptoms but started. He was visibly sluggish and only played 12 minutes. Andre Ingram, who has finished the season strong off the bench, played 29 minutes.
The Gophers had 22 turnovers including 13 in the second half after they gave the ball up 21 times Tuesday.
Williams was Minnesota’s only player with more than four points in the first half. He had 12 of the Gophers’ 25. But he said he lost control mentally when foul calls weren’t going his way and he got in foul trouble.
Williams and Hollins made the NIT All-Tournament Team, voted on by the media. The Minnesota Daily did not cast a ballot.
Stanford’s 5-foot-11 guard Aaron Bright was the tournament’s most outstanding player. He led the Cardinal with 15 points and 6 assists Thursday.
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