By Jason Schott - @JESchott19
The Minnesota Golden Gophers won the NIT, as they outlasted the SMU Mustangs, 65-63, in the championship game on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Minnesota is coached by Richard Pitino, who is in his first year at the school and is the son of Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino. This is the second straight year a Pitino has won a postseason tournament, as Louisville won the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Pitino said of winning the NIT, "Obviously extremely happy for our guys to win a championship. They were a lot of fun to coach. I thought they all got better, they worked extremely hard, and had an unbelievable enthusiasm all year, every practice. They're a special group, they taught me a lot, they made me better, and I'm really, really happy for them that they get to walk off the Madison Square Garden court as winners."
SMU Head Coach Larry Brown said of the game, "Got to give a lot of credit to Richard (Pitino) and his team. It got really rough there, they got down seven, got their kids to dig in a little bit, and we didn't handle prosperity very well and had some terrible turnovers the rest of the game and I think it turned the game around. Obviously, both teams were disappointed we weren't able to play in the NCAA and I think all the teams that were here showed a lot of character picking themselves up and making a run."
Pitino said of facing off against Larry Brown, "He is a Hall of Famer and an unbelievable coach and I have unbelievable respect for him, his passion of the game. He's 73, he doesn't look like it, he doesn't coach like it, he's as sharp as it gets. Every time we switched defenses, he sniffed it out right away. I've got a lot of respect for him, and I really do appreciate, you know, for an older coach, he was very, very gracious to me, and it really means a lot. He's a really good person, a phenomenal coach, but a really good person."
The game was an exciting thriller that had the intimate crowd (5,268) at The Garden on their feet toward the end. SMU appeared to be in control with 5:52 left in the game when a Markus Kennedy dunk gave them a 53-46 lead.
Minnesota responded with an 11-1 run capped by an Austin Hollins layup that gave them a 57-54 lead with 1:52 left. On the next possession, SMU tied it on a Nick Russell three-pointer. A minute later, Austin Hollins hit what would turn out to be the winning shot, a three-pointer with 45 seconds left that gave Minnesota a 62-59 lead, and they would give that lead up the rest of the way.
Austin Hollins was named Most Outstanding Player of the NIT, as he scored 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Hollins said of this team winning it, "I think the biggest thing for the NIT was to help this team get that experience and build for the future. The guys were working extremely hard and they just didn't quit. They showed a lot of heart and a lot of toughness and were able to come back."
Hollins' father is Lionel Hollins, who until last season was the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Since Lionel is not coaching in the NBA this season, he was able to go to more of Austin's games, so Austin said "things are meant to happen for a reason." Austin said of his parents, "Being here four years and putting in so much work and having them be here for this moment felt great."
Andre Hollins, no relation to Austin even though they both are from Tennessee, had 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Deandre Mathieu had 13 points (5-8 FG) and 7 assists.
NIT OFFICIALS NOT HAPPY WITH ST. JOHN'S: The four teams to make it to the NIT semifinals at The Garden on Tuesday night were Minnesota, SMU, Florida State, and Clemson. Three of them were Number one seeds except for Clemson, which was a third seed.
St. John's had the top spot in Clemson's bracket, but showed no effort in the opening game of the NIT on March 18th in a loss at home to Robert Morris, 89-78, in a game that was more lopsided than the final score indicated. NIT Executive Director Jack Powers pushed hard to make St. John's a top seed, and was very disappointed with their lack of effort and not dressing starting point guard Rysheed Jordan for the game because of laryngitis. It may be awhile before St. John's is invited back to the NIT.
It has been a chaotic couple of weeks for the Red Storm, as JaKarr Sampson declared for the NBA Draft last week, three-pointer specialist Max Hooper announced late last week that he's transferring, and Thursday brought the news that shot-blocking extraordinaire Chris Obepka will also be transferring. To think, if things were different, they all could have been suited up for the NIT championship game on Thursday night and tried to reclaim some glory. Instead, the future does not look promising.