The Gophers looked poised to lethargically step aside and bow out of the National Invitation Tournament on Sunday afternoon.
Minnesota fell behind 14-0 to St. Mary’s in the second round of the NIT at Williams Arena and showed no sign of resurgence.
No one could really blame the Gophers for bowing out. They had come close to reaching their ultimate goal — the NCAA tournament — before being snubbed last Sunday. They had already won their first-round game against High Point. There wasn’t a lot of shame of losing in a second round.
But the Gophers flipped the script and made sure their season and the collegiate careers of their three seniors didn’t end Sunday.
Minnesota roared back for a 63-55 win over the Gaels to set up an NIT Elite Eight matchup with Southern Miss on Tuesday night.
“If we didn’t want it to end, we had to keep fighting,” junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “Coach [Richard Pitino] lit a fire under us to keep fighting, if not for us, for our seniors.”
Minnesota did that, especially on the defensive end. Though shots weren’t falling, the defensive effort stayed true.
Minnesota held St. Mary’s to 38 percent shooting in what senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi called one of the team’s best defensive performances of the season.
That clampdown effort was anchored down low by junior center Elliott Eliason, who tied a career high with seven blocked shots.
“He was huge,” Pitino said. “It’s good to see [Eliason and Ahanmisi] step up and make big plays.”
A bulk of the offensive presence came from the hot hand of sophomore forward Joey King. The Drake transfer scored 18 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence,” King said. “It feels good. Shots are dropping, [and] the ball’s feeling good coming out of my hand. I’m just playing well.”
Pitino admitted it’s tough for everyone to stay motivated for the NIT, especially when players see and hear about the NCAA tournament constantly.
Still, with each win, Pitino said it gets a little easier for his team. The Gophers are one win away from a trip to the Big Apple for the NIT semifinals.
Tuesday’s opponent offers some additional motivation for the Gophers. Southern Miss is led by coach Donnie Tyndall, who coached Mathieu at Morehead State for one year before Mathieu left after Tyndall did not offer him a scholarship.
It also marks the return of Chip Armelin to the Barn. Armelin played at Minnesota for a little more than one season before transferring to play for the Golden Eagles.
If the Gophers can top Tyndall and Armelin, it would earn them a trip to Madison Square Garden, which Pitino dubbed the mecca of college basketball.
“I’m really excited,” said Mathieu, who’s never been to New York City. “Madison Square Garden — they said it’s just amazing, just the facilities and everything.
“I’m really excited [for the chance] to get there.”