Men’s hoops muscles 96-62 win from Lobos

Jabari Ritchie

Fourteen minutes into Minnesota’s 96-62 thrashing of New Mexico in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament on Wednesday, Gophers point guard Kevin Burleson snatched a half-court steal and ran uncontested toward the hoop with forward Michael Bauer.

Burleson dished the ball to Bauer, who threw down a powerful slam dunk to cap off a 16-4 run that gave Minnesota a 34-28 lead and sent the Williams Arena crowd into such a loud frenzy that it almost seemed as if there were more than 4,097 fans in The Barn.

While the season-low attendance mark pointed toward the insignificance of the postseason tournament, Minnesota’s intensity showed the Gophers felt they still had something to prove.

“We don’t have the NCAA; that’s not a factor anymore,” said Bauer, who made up for an 0-11 field goal shooting performance in last week’s Big Ten tournament with seven points and four rebounds.

“We’re playing with intensity because this is all we have left and we’re going to try to make the most of it.”

Not only did Minnesota play aggressively, dominating the Lobos inside with 49 rebounds to New Mexico’s 26, but the Gophers frequently dove to the floor and battled for loose balls – sometimes even fighting each other for possession.

Nearly every player in Minnesota’s lineup hit the floor at some point as the Gophers grabbed 13 steals and committed 21 fouls.

“We showed way more heart than New Mexico tonight,” said Minnesota guard Travarus Bennett, who had game highs with 23 points, 15 rebounds and five steals. “We wanted our season to keep going and I don’t think they wanted it as bad as we did.”

Despite suffering cold stretches during the first half, giving up 7-0 and 8-0 runs, the Gophers used streaks of their own to take a 47-40 lead into the locker room.

Midway through the second half, Minnesota took a 14-2 run – highlighted by a Kerwin Fleming three-pointer with 7:46 remaining – to put New Mexico away for good.

“We had them by seven at the half and there’s no way you pull away from a team like that unless there’s heart involved,” said Minnesota forward Rick Rickert, who had 18 points. “We definitely had that tonight.”

The 34-point margin of victory was the Gophers’ largest since beating Maryland-Eastern Shore by 47 on Dec. 13. Minnesota’s point total was its highest since Nov. 25, 2000.

But Minnesota, which shot 53 percent to the Lobos’ .364 field goal percentage, trailed by as many as six points in the first half.

“On most nights we can play with them,” said New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla. “We thought we could tonight. If we were to play a series with them, not all games would go like this, but clearly they were the better team.”

As the Gophers’ reserves took the court with less than two minutes remaining in the contest, the Williams student section began to chant, “Season’s over.”

Minnesota will host a second-round NIT matchup between the winner of Friday’s game between Richmond and Montana State on Monday.

“We’ve been talking all week about ‘the disease,'” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “This time of year it’s an epidemic that can spread on a team like wildfire. It’s a disease of not caring if your season’s over Ö. We don’t have that disease. We didn’t have one guy who looked like he didn’t want to keep playing.”

Jabari Ritchie covers men’s basketball and
welcomes comments at [email protected]