Gophers come to life for NIT win over High Point
By Marcus R. Fuller
MINNEAPOLIS — The sparse Williams Arena crowd of 3,493 was about as lifeless as the Gophers’ players were on the court until about 90 seconds remained in the first half Tuesday night.
That’s when Mo Walker threw down a dunk.
Seconds later, Austin Hollins leaped over the opposing bench going for a loose ball.
If that wasn’t enough to get fans excited, Joey King’s three-pointer capped a 12-3 run for a nine-point halftime lead.
Those plays were the catalysts in Minnesota’s 88-81 NIT-opening win over High Point at Williams Arena.
“You found out who wants to play and who doesn’t,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.
Pitino wore a look of concern going into the locker room after his team clearly suffered from a post-NCAA selection show hangover early in the first half. He relied on rarely used senior reserve Maverick Ahanmisi more than he planned to after starting junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu was lost for most of the second half with a right hip injury.
Ahanmisi, who had averaged 2.1 points in 8.6 minutes a game this season, delivered with a career high 21 points on 6-for-11 shooting from the field and 8 for 10 from the free-throw line.
“He’s playing play well; I’m happy for him,” Pitino said. “I’ve said all along, one of my biggest regrets decision-wise, I’ve got a lot of them, I just wanted to find him more minutes. It takes a lot of substance to come into practice when you’re not playing and continue to play hard and continue to stay positive.”
Mathieu, who didn’t return after leaving two minutes into the second half, had a defender fall on him behind the basket after being fouled on a layup in the first half. He had to be helped off the floor, but he returned to play.
The Gophers (21-13) were being cautious with Mathieu because they’ll need him Sunday when they play the winner of Tuesday night’s Utah-St. Mary’s game at Williams Arena.
Mathieu said he reinjured his hip after first being hurt in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinal loss against Wisconsin on Friday.
“I’ll be fine for the game Sunday,” Mathieu said in the locker room. “I’ll just take it a day at a time, lot of treatment.”
Minnesota received a No. 1 seed in the NIT on Sunday — a consolation prize for failing to reach its goals of making the NCAA tournament.
Players said the right things leading up to Tuesday’s game. They talked about wanting to get all the way to the NIT championship game in New York, just as a few of them did in 2012.
They seemingly were looking forward to the opportunity to continue playing. But then came game day.
About 15 minutes before tipoff, the teams were warming up in front of roughly 2,000 fans.
“We told (the younger players), it’s something you have to cherish,” Ahanmisi said about playing in the NIT, “because we’re seniors now and we’re going to miss it.”
A year earlier, the Gophers were playing in front of a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, in their first postseason game in the NCAA tournament’s second round against UCLA.
They were fortunate then to get selected as a No. 11 seed. That motivated them to a 20-point victory over the sixth-seeded Bruins.
On Tuesday night, High Point looked for most of the game like the team hoping to prove something in the NIT.
But Minnesota opened the second half with Walker starting at center in place of Elliott Eliason. He provided an immediate boost with four of his 13 points in the first minute.
Hollins’ jumper gave Minnesota a 47-32 lead, but High Point went on a 23-13 run to make it a five-point game just under eight minutes left.
King’s two free throws answered the rally for the Gophers, who wouldn’t let the Panthers get any closer.
King, an Eagan native, finished with his second straight double-digit scoring game with 14 points and seven rebounds.
Andre Hollins struggled again from the field, going 2 for 9 after he went 2 for 14 in the Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Wisconsin. But the junior guard still scored 13 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the foul line.
John Brown, High Point’s leading scorer and the Big South player of the year, had 19 points but was limited to just 21 minutes because of foul trouble. He fouled out with 2:40 left.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.