Gophers hold off La Salle, advance to NIT second round

Minnesota will play at No. 2 seed Miami (Fla.) on Monday.

Charlie Armitz

Not much has come easily for the Gophers this season, and Wednesday’s first-round National Invitation Tournament game against La Salle was no exception.

Yet Minnesota looked comfortable — a rare sight during the team’s last few months of Big Ten play — as it closed out the Explorers during a fast-paced, highlight-packed game that played to the Gophers’ strengths.

Minnesota kept its season alive with a 70-61 win at La Salle’s home court in Philadelphia. Despite being the lower seed, the Gophers controlled most of the second half and kept an energized crowd of 3,023 out of the game.

“I am impressed,” said head coach Tubby Smith after his 100th career victory with Minnesota. “All year long, we’ve been in every game … Now, we’re starting to make some of these steps.”

Rodney Williams tied a career-high with 21 points, including several athletic finishes near the rim.

He had 17 points in the first half, including a dunk over the Explorers’ Earl Pettis with 1:36 left that tied the game at 37-37. Minnesota took a 40-37 lead into halftime.

The pace slowed considerably in the second half, when both teams struggled to make easy baskets.

The Gophers, who failed to close out Michigan in last weekend’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal, ended Wednesday’s game on a 20-8 run. Austin Hollins had 11 of his 16 points during that stretch.

The Gophers shot 52 percent from the field despite making only one of 11 shots from long range. Williams, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins combined to score 50 points and make 20 of 29 shots from inside the 3-point arc.

Andre Hollins, who made the Big Ten’s All-Tournament team after scoring 46 points in two games last weekend, had 13 points.

Miami up next

The Gophers will again look to extend their season with a second-round showdown at Miami (Fla.) on Monday.

The Hurricanes defeated the Gophers 63-58 in the team’s only meeting in December 2009.

The No. 2 seed in the region, Miami defeated No. 7 seed Valparaiso 66-50 in the first round Wednesday behind Rion Brown’s 18 points.

Scott Durand, who leads the Hurricanes with 12.9 points per game, sat out the contest as part of a six-game suspension that will carry over into Monday’s game. Durand was declared ineligible two weeks ago for receiving impermissible benefits.