Hollins leads Gophers to New York for NIT semifinals

Austin Hollins led Minnesota with a career-high 32 points in his final game at Williams Arena.

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins passes the ball, Tuesday night at the National Invitation Tournament game against Southern Mississippi at Williams Arena. Gophers won 81-73 and are advancing to the semifinals.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins passes the ball, Tuesday night at the National Invitation Tournament game against Southern Mississippi at Williams Arena. Gophers won 81-73 and are advancing to the semifinals.

Jace Frederick

Austin Hollins must really love New York.

That, or he knows that every time he steps out on the floor, he’s playing to extend his college career.

That might explain the herculean effort the senior guard put forth Tuesday night in his final act at Williams Arena.

Hollins scored a career-high 32 points to push the Gophers past Southern Mississippi 81-73 and into a semifinal contest at Madison Square Garden next week.

Hollins was removed from the game with less than five seconds left and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Not a bad way to go out.

“That was the best way to say good bye to [Williams Arena] tonight,” Hollins said.

Still, Hollins and the rest of the team know there is work to be done.

A few minutes after the win, Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blared from the locker room as the Gophers shuffled around the carpeted floor.

That moment of elation was a complete 180 for the Gophers from 10 days ago, when they were left dejected after missing the NCAA tournament.

Though it wasn’t necessarily the tournament the team wanted at the ended of the season, the effort is admirable. There are some teams that miss out of the NCAA tournament and flop early in the NIT, disinterested with the second-tier tournament.

Gophers head coach Richard Pitino wouldn’t let his team go out like that. He pushed his players, not allowing them to fall short of Madison Square Garden in the Big Apple.

His players responded.

“We’re a resilient team,” junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “We just kept fighting. That’s all we do.”

That fight has been personified through three consecutive postseason wins over quality mid-major programs. Those wins have the players, and the program, moving forward.

It looked like a potential letdown early on Tuesday night.

Southern Miss used scorching-hot shooting en route to a 33-25 lead late in the first half.

That’s when Austin Hollins stepped up. Hollins scored the Gophers’ next 12 points on the strength of three triples to thrust Minnesota into the lead.

“That’s big-time,” Mathieu said. “He’s a senior. He doesn’t want it to end.”

That’s what this run has been all about for Minnesota — not wanting this journey to end for the seniors, while building toward the future for the underclassmen.

Gophers sophomore forward Joey King has represented the latter. King has made the jump from a so-so contributor to a legitimate scoring threat this postseason. He dumped in 15 points Tuesday, his fourth-consecutive double-digit scoring performance.

“It’s been a great stretch,” he said. “I just want to keep playing hard, and hopefully we keep winning.”

That’s the plan for the Gophers, who are playing some of their best basketball of the season and heading to the biggest and brightest stage their sport has to offer.

Now Minnesota heads to New York for the NIT Final Four — two wins away from an NIT championship.

Not a bad consolation prize.

“I’ve heard a lot of big things about how cool it is,” King said. “It should be a special and unique experience.”