Gophers search for redemption in final

Minnesota lost to Stanford 75-51 in the NIT final two seasons ago.

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu drives past two Florida State defenders Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Image by Bridget Bennett

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu drives past two Florida State defenders Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

by Jace Frederick

NEW YORK — We’ve seen this movie before.

The Gophers are back in the National Invitation Tournament final for the second time in three years. Minnesota’s first appearance didn’t go so hot.

The Gophers were run out of Madison Square Garden two years ago, falling 75-51 to Stanford in the final. That pummeling put a damper on an otherwise successful postseason stretch.

The Gophers are hoping to flip the script this time around and finish this NIT run with a championship.

“The way we lost to Stanford, if that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is,” junior guard Andre Hollins said.

This path to the NIT final, however, is different than it was two years ago. So much has changed since then.

“There’s a lot of differences,” senior guard Austin Hollins said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys on our team. We’ve got a new coach, new staff, new style of play.

“You can’t compare this run to the last run.”

The 2011-12 Gophers barely made the NIT. They earned just six Big Ten regular-season wins, and they were lucky to even play in the postseason.

The 2013-14 Gophers are a different story. Minnesota was better than most people expected in Richard Pitino’s first season as the bench boss.

The Gophers won eight Big Ten games in the regular season and just missed the NCAA tournament — earning a No. 1 seed in the NIT.

Many teams that garner a top seed in the NIT fall early in the competition, uninterested in the second-tier tournament.

Not the Gophers.

They won three consecutive games to get back to Madison Square Garden.

Gophers junior center Mo Walker said the reason for the perseverance and unwillingness to fold is simple.

“We just love the game,” Walker said. “We love to play, and no matter where we play, we’re going to play hard and do our best.”

Playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden motivated the Gophers, too, Walker said.

“It’s fun,” he said. “You really feel like you’re on that big stage.”

Still, the lights and glamour of New York can make it difficult to focus on the game — something that might have hurt the Gophers the last time around.

“The first time we were here, we were more awe-stricken,” Andre Hollins said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is Madison Square Garden. We’re here. This is big-time. This is the big show.’”

Hollins said the veterans are more prepared for the moment this season. As for the bright lights, the Gophers have a been-there-done-that mentality.

“It’s much easier to focus now because you’ve already seen everything,” Hollins said. “We use that experience and shed that to our younger guys … who haven’t been here before. This is a business trip.”

Whether that increased focus leads to a title will be determined Thursday night when the team hits the court against Southern Methodist.

Austin Hollins said this NIT run and the Gophers’ last one both provide momentum toward next year. Besides that, he said this run is different.

And the Gophers are hoping it ends differently, too.

“It stung when we lost to Stanford — making it to the championship and then having to lose,” Austin Hollins said. “We don’t want that to happen again.”