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Hollins scores career-high 32 as Gophers reach NIT semifinals

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By Marcus R. Fuller

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MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino’s first season as Gophers basketball coach wasn’t going to be deemed a success or failure based on whether Minnesota reached the NCAA tournament.

Sure, it was disappointing for the program and fans once it was clear the Gophers weren’t going to be part of the Big Dance. But a trip to New York to play at New York’s Madison Square Garden for an NIT championship is a nice consolation prize.

Senior guard Austin Hollins, who was on Minnesota’s NIT runner-up team in 2012, scored 18 of his career-high 32 points in the first half to help the Gophers come back from a nine-point deficit to beat Southern Mississippi 81-73 Tuesday night in the NIT quarterfinals at Williams Arena.

Minnesota (23-23) will play the winner of Wednesday’s Louisiana Tech-Georgetown game in the NIT Final Four next Tuesday in New York City. The championship game is April 3.

Hollins, who was 8 of 14 from the field and 10 for 10 on free throws, clearly didn’t want the top-seeded Gophers to end the season with a loss in his final home game.

The Golden Eagles (29-7), who upset second-seeded Missouri on the road Sunday, made the Barn crowd flash back to the ugly start against St. Mary’s in the Gophers’ previous game, when they trailed 14-0 but rallied to win.

It was another big swing of momentum Tuesday as Southern Miss took a 13-4 lead early and had an eight-point advantage late in the first half.

Hollins later scored 12 straight points during a 19-7 run. The Gophers led 44-40 at halftime following his fifth three-pointer in the waning seconds.

Hollins was a starter on the 2012 team that won three straight road games and defeated No. 1 seed Washington in the semifinals in New York before losing to Stanford in the finals two years ago.

Pitino wrote on a board in the locker room Sunday the reasons why he thought his players should remain eager to keep playing in the NIT.

— You’re a competitor.

— You appreciate this opportunity and want to take advantage of it.

— You don’t want to send your seniors out with a loss.

— You want to get to New York and play in Madison Square Garden.

— Get your coach back to his roots in New York (father was born there).

— Do you love the game or not?

The second reason on the list probably is the one that has motivated players the most.

As they did two years ago, the Gophers were expecting to have a majority of their team back the following season. Tubby Smith returned all five starters in 2012-13 from a team that finished 23-15 and went to the NIT finals.

Last season, expectations were for the Gophers to reach the NCAA tournament. They did and won a game.

Next season, Pitino is set to return four starters, including All-Big Ten honorable mention guards Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu.

Starting power forward Joey King has had four straight double-digit scoring games, including 15 points on 7-for-13 shooting Tuesday.

Mo Walker, arguably the team’s top reserve, has shown in the NIT that he could have a chance to compete for the starting center spot with Elliott Eliason next season. Walker had 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three steals against Southern Miss.

But it will obviously be difficult to replace Austin Hollins, who is not only the team’s top perimeter defender (three steals Tuesday) but veteran leader.

Hollins came through with other big offensive performances late in the season, including a 27-point game in an upset of Iowa at home.

On Tuesday, Southern Miss cut its 13-point deficit to 76-71 on a three-pointer from 32.5 seconds left. But Hollins would hit six straight free throws to seal the victory.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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