Gophers scrape by Florida State in overtime

A missed buzzer-beater propelled Minnesota to the National Invitation Tournament final with a 67-64 win.

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu drives past two Florida State defenders Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Image by Bridget Bennett

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu drives past two Florida State defenders Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

by Jace Frederick

NEW YORK — There’s no question the NCAA tournament provides the brightest stage in college basketball.

Still, the spotlights illuminating the Gophers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night weren’t too bad, either.

And on one of basketball’s most famous floors — which head coach Richard Pitino previously dubbed the Mecca of college basketball — his team’s stars shined as they gritted out an overtime victory over Florida State.

Minnesota beat the Seminoles 67-64 in New York to advance to the National Invitation Tournament final.

The Gophers looked like they had the game wrapped up in regulation, but a pair of missed free throws by Malik Smith followed by a game-tying 3-pointer by Seminoles sophomore guard Devon Bookert sent the game to overtime.

“You couldn’t do anything about it,” senior guard Austin Hollins said. “In that situation you’ve just got to forget it and move on.”

It was fitting for the Gophers, who have liked doing things the hard way all season.

But unlike so many times in the regular season, Minnesota made enough plays to overcome its crucial mistakes.

Florida State senior guard Ian Miller’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer clanked off the back iron, securing the Gophers’ date with Southern Methodist University in the NIT final.

“We just found a way to win when everybody else probably thought we were going to lose,” Pitino said. “We just gutted it out.”

The Gophers hit their first six field goals of the game Tuesday to build a 17-6 lead less than six minutes into the game — one of their only offensive highlights on the night.

Minnesota shot just 39 percent from the field and struggled to generate offense of any kind.

So the game was left in the hands of Minnesota’s defense — an area that was so maligned for much of the year but has been so solid in the NIT.

The Gophers’ defense stood the test one more time, and they forced Florida State into 18 turnovers, while limiting the Seminoles to 38 percent shooting.

Minnesota was at a clear size disadvantage from the opening tip. Florida State featured the third-tallest roster in the nation, according to And Minnesota played without starting center Elliott Eliason, who sat out with a left ankle injury.

The Gophers’ disadvantage seemed to grow with each whistle as their remaining big men — junior center Mo Walker and sophomore forward Joey King — dealt with foul trouble all evening.

Minnesota junior forward Oto Osenieks — who hadn’t played in the NIT because his career was presumed over after a knee injury — was thrust into heavy action. He played 32 minutes and contributed all over the floor.

“For a guy who made the decision to basically be done after this year, he just wants to do everything possible to help this team win,” Pitino said.

Still, the guards, the unquestioned backbone of the Gophers all season, carried the team down the stretch.

Whether it was Austin Hollins hitting a huge 3-pointer or DeAndre Mathieu getting to the rack for key buckets, the backcourt made the big plays that made the difference.

Mathieu, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins combined to score 47 of the team’s 67 points.

“It hasn’t happened much,” Pitino said, “but when those three are clicking, we’re hard to guard.”

Pitino pulled out his blue suit with the white pinstripes — his favorite of the bunch — Tuesday night for the brightest stage of the season.

He’ll have to try to somehow top it Thursday as Minnesota looks for a title to cap off the first year of his reign as head coach.

It’s a conundrum he’s likely happy to face.