Gophers prep for NIT quarterfinals

No. 4-seeded Middle Tennessee State upset top seed Tennessee in the 2nd round of the National Invitation Tournament.

Charlie Armitz

When March rolls around in college basketball, underdogs thrive.

It’s a rule that exists not only in the NCAA tournament, but in this year’s National Invitation Tournament, where two lower seeds — Middle Tennessee State and Minnesota — will meet Wednesday in the quarterfinals after each upset a higher seed in the second round.

The No. 6-seeded Gophers defeated No. 2 seed Miami 78-60 on Monday, dominating the Hurricanes from start to finish. Five days earlier, Minnesota had upset No. 3 La Salle with a less-convincing 70-61 win.

Both wins came on the road, and the Gophers (21-14) will travel again for Wednesday’s game in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

MTSU (27-6) won its first-round match against No. 5 seed Marshall in Murfreesboro before traveling to Knoxville, Tenn., to upset No. 1 seed Tennessee 71-64 on Monday in front of an announced crowd of 12,038.

Guard Bruce Massey led the Blue Raiders with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the upset.

MTSU’s leading scorer and rebounder, LaRon Dendy, added 10 points and nine rebounds.

At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Dendy could pose a matchup problem for the Gophers. Minnesota’s Elliott Eliason, who has started four straight games at center and is 6-foot-11, has struggled to defend versatile post players like Dendy without getting into foul trouble.

The task of defending Dendy could fall upon the Gophers’ Andre Ingram, a 6-foot-7 forward who tallied season-highs in points (8), rebounds (6) and minutes (24) off the bench against Miami. However, he also had four fouls.

Eliason, Ingram and lanky forward Rodney Williams each have struggled with foul trouble lately, but they have thrived on offense with help from Minnesota’s guards.

Williams has scored 21 points — tied for a career-high — in back-to-back games while shooting 67 percent. He also scored 20 points in Minnesota’s loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.

Yet Williams, whose offensive game remains limited in his junior season, hasn’t faced the pressure of leading his team in offensive situations. That role has fallen into the hands of freshman guard Andre Hollins, who seems to have matured a year in his last few weeks as a starter.

Hollins has averaged 17.2 points in his last six games, scoring from all around the court and at the free-throw line. He took over in the second half against Miami, making consecutive 3-pointers after the Hurricanes had cut into the Gophers’ lead.

If the Gophers defeat MTSU, they will face Washington in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Huskies defeated Oregon 90-86 on Tuesday.