Gophers advance to NIT semifinals

Rodney Williams and Andre Hollins scored 24 points apiece as Minnesota defeated Middle Tennessee State 78-72.

The Gophers Rodney Williams slams in two points during a game against Nebraska Saturday, March 3 at Williams Arena. Williams scored a career-high 24 points in Wednesdays 78-72 win against Middle Tennessee State.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

The Gophers’ Rodney Williams slams in two points during a game against Nebraska Saturday, March 3 at Williams Arena. Williams scored a career-high 24 points in Wednesday’s 78-72 win against Middle Tennessee State.

by Charlie Armitz

Even when the Gophers are playing their best — which they are now — they find a way to make things interesting.

In Wednesday’s National Invitation Tournament quarterfinal against No. 4 seed Middle Tennessee State, No. 6 seed Minnesota turned a solid performance into a late scare before regrouping for a 78-72 win in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The Gophers led by nine points when the Blue Raiders made a ferocious rally to climb within two points with 7.2 seconds left.

But freshman Andre Hollins made two free throws after MTSU’s LaRon Dendy received a technical foul for reaching across the baseline on an inbound play, and the Gophers hung on for their third-consecutive upset win.

Hollins and Rodney Williams scored 24 points apiece to lead all scorers. Williams fell to the floor in the final minute with what looked to be a severe leg cramp, but he returned for the final two possessions.

Minnesota will play Washington, a No. 1 seed, on March 27 in the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Throughout the NIT, the Gophers have looked like a different team on offense from the one that struggled to take care of the ball and score during Big Ten play. Minnesota continued its offensive outburst Wednesday, scoring 50 points in the second half and shooting 49 percent from the field overall.

The Gophers’ bench, which was key to their win Monday against Miami (Fla.), managed just one point on 0-for-4 shooting. During one stretch in the first half, both teams were scoreless for more than four minutes while their starters sat.

Minnesota starters Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Williams each played 36 minutes and combined to make 16 of 18 free throws.

Despite poor execution on inbound plays late in the game, the Gophers were able to maintain their lead because of excellent free-throw shooting.

Freshman Elliott Eliason chipped in a career-high 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting in 32 minutes while staying out of foul trouble — something he didn’t do in the team’s first two NIT games.

Eliason handled the tough matchup with Dendy, who scored 11 points on 3-for-9 shooting and had five rebounds.

MTSU broke down Minnesota’s perimeter defense throughout the game, but the Gophers were solid inside, blocking five shots and forcing 17 turnovers.

On offense, Minnesota made timely 3-pointers to turn a four-point halftime deficit into a 51-45 lead with 11:54 left in the second half.

After scoring four points in the first half, Andre Hollins carried the team with 20 points in the second half. The freshman has averaged 18.1 points in his last seven games.


—Senior forward/center Ralph Sampson III sat out his fifth consecutive game with a tweaked knee. Minnesota is 4-1 without Sampson during that stretch.

—After posting career-highs in points (8), rebounds (6) and minutes (24) against Miami, junior forward Andre Ingram had no points, four rebounds and three fouls in 12 minutes Wednesday.

—The Gophers have shot a combined 53 percent in their three NIT games. They shot 44 percent in 18 conference games and had a 6-12 Big Ten regular-season record.

—Minnesota is 15-1 in nonconference games this season.