Grier leads Gophers into Cincinnati

by C.J. Spang

While it’s not the coveted NCAA Tournament, it is the postseason. And that’s something everyone on Minnesota’s men’s basketball team is happy to be a part of.

After defeating fifth-seeded Wake Forest 73-58 in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament on Wednesday at Williams Arena, the fourth-seeded Gophers travel to take on first-seeded Cincinnati (20-12) at 8 p.m. today.

Senior guard Vincent Grier had an impressive game against the Demon Deacons, scoring a game-high 18 points.

Even more impressive were his seven rebounds, eight assists and four steals to go along with those baskets.

“I had a fast start and the team fed off that,” Grier said. “It helped in getting the team going.”

Minnesota (16-14) will rely on Grier’s play, especially his defense, against the Bearcats, who advanced to the second round after defeating Charlotte, N.C., 86-80 on Friday.

“They’re in this tournament because (Eric Hicks) and (Cedric) McGowan wanted to keep playing,” coach Dan Monson said.

The two senior forwards had huge games against Charlotte, as Hicks scored 23 points and grabbed 18 boards and McGowan scored 20 points and pulled down 13 rebounds.

Hicks has had one of the best seasons in Bearcats history, and needs just one blocked shot to tie the school’s single-season blocks record held by current NBA player Kenyon Martin.

“(Hicks is) the core of their team,” senior forward Zach Puchtel said. “If we can take him out, it would be like taking a leg out of a chair.”

But the Bearcats’ threats don’t end with those two forwards.

Senior guard James White has been the most consistent scorer for Cincinnati, averaging 16.3 points per game this season.

And that’s where Grier’s defensive play will be crucial if the Gophers hope to advance.

“James White is a great player,” Grier said. “I’ll take on whatever responsibility the team needs me to take on.”

And that responsibility could be the difference in whether the Gophers advance to the third round of the NIT for the second-consecutive time.

Minnesota made the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden in 2003 – the same year Minnesota made its last appearance in the NIT.

“We want to get to Madison (Square Garden),” Grier said. “If you’re going to play in a tournament, you might as well win it.”