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After OT nailbiter, Gophers advance to NIT championship

After OT nailbiter, Gophers advance to NIT championship
Minnesota guard Andre Hollins came up big in the second half and
the overtime period Tuesday in the Gophers overtime win over
Washington at Madison Square Garden.
Minnesota guard Andre Hollins came up big in the second half and the overtime period Tuesday in the Gophers’ overtime win over Washington at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK — Some teams are built for the big stage, and some are built for the still big, but considerably smaller stage.

The Gophers appear to be the latter.

Minnesota advanced to the National Invitation Tournament championship after a 68-67 overtime win Tuesday against Washington in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

The Gophers never trailed in the second half, but a late Huskies charge tied the game at 61-61 to force overtime.

Minnesota controlled much of the game, but the late scare almost knocked the team out of the tournament.

Andre Hollins was a clutch performer, sinking critical free throws at the end of regulation and converting a 3-point play midway through overtime. He also hit a runner in the lane with less than 24 seconds remaining in the extra session to stretch Minnesota’s lead to 68-65.

Julian Welch missed two free throws in the waning seconds of overtime, but a three-quarter court Huskies lob shot fell short, and the Gophers escaped.

“We’ve put the ball in Andre [Hollins’] hands, and he’s delivered,” head coach Tubby Smith said. Hollins finished with 20 points to lead the Gophers.

Minnesota’s turnovers almost cost the game, but with its collection of young players coupled with regular-season struggles, the team appears hungry to extend its season and prove itself in the NIT.

“We had a tough stretch toward the end of the regular season,” junior forward Rodney Williams said.

“We said, ‘If we get to the postseason tournament, we’re going to play our hearts out,’ and that’s what we’re doing.”

Minnesota has caught fire in the NIT and has now won five of its last six games after snapping a six-game losing streak.

Williams had been the Gophers’ star of the NIT and played well again Tuesday, carrying the offense in the first half. He finished with 18 points on 8-for-17 shooting but shot just 3-of-10 in the second half and overtime.

That’s when Hollins stepped up.

He was often in isolation situations on offense down the stretch, and either hit a shot or got to the free-throw line, where he shot 7-for-7.

Smith said rebounding was a key to his team playing well in the tournament, but added that it needs to cut down on its turnovers.

Minnesota also got a big boost from an unexpected source Tuesday.

Little-used forward Andre Ingram did well in an off-the-bench role. He assured the Gophers didn’t skip a beat when starter Elliot Eliason sat after picking up his second foul early in the first half.

Ingram had nine points and five rebounds in 24 minutes and played well in the post to defend Washington’s 7-foot-tall Aziz N’Diaye.

Minnesota was technically the road team Tuesday, but both teams were far removed from their fan bases. The Huskies travelled 2,400 miles to get to the arena. The lower bowl was sparsely populated with smatterings of fans from each team.

The Gophers capitalized on a broken fast break late in the first half, and that’s when it seemed to take control. Joe Coleman converted a layup to give Minnesota a 10-point, 29-19 lead.

On the ensuing possession, Washington turned the ball over and Coleman received an outlet pass on the break again. He missed the contested layup, but Austin Hollins was there to clean up the mess and his tip-slam extended the Gophers’ lead to 12.

Later, Andre Hollins hit a 3-pointer with time winding down in the first half, but Washington responded with a buzzer-beating three to cut the lead back to 12 entering the break. Minnesota went to the locker room with momentum after outplaying the Huskies the past few minutes.

Washington’s Terrence Ross led all scorers with 21 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Austin Hollins guarded him closely throughout the game.

Ralph Sampson III missed his sixth-straight game with a tweaked knee and Oto Osenieks again did not play. He has suffered from concussion symptoms.

“It’s been an up-and-down season,” Smith said. “It’s just amazing, I’m really amazed at how [the players] have stepped up.”

Washington rode the tournament’s No. 1 seed into Tuesday’s contest. It defeated Pac-12 rival Oregon to advance to the semifinals.

Minnesota will play Stanford Thursday at 6 p.m. for the NIT championship. The Cardinal  defeated Massachusetts 74-64 Tuesday to reach the finals.

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