In just his first year at the helm of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Richard Pitino accomplished something his father, Rick Pitino, never has in his career—win the NIT. While it wasn't the NCAA tournament, the Golden Gophers' 65-63 win over SMU gives Pitino his first postseason title.
Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins led Minnesota with a combined 33 points with Austin going 8-for-12 from the floor in his final game. Deandre Mathieu was also effective, chipping in 13 points and adding seven assists.
The elder Hollins took home some individual hardware of his own, per Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press:
It may have been the first NIT championship for the Pitino family, but it certainly wasn't for the Golden Gophers program, as ESPN Stats & Info notes:
Minnesota: 3rd NIT Championship; 5th school with at least 3 NIT titles (joining St. John's, Bradley, Dayton & Michigan)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 4, 2014
Though it was a huge win for Richard Pitino, much of the talk throughout the night was about his father. Rick Pitino spent the entire night just behind the Minnesota bench with former Louisville and current Detroit Pistons player Peyton Siva.
Eamonn Brennan of ESPN and Patrick Stevens of Syracuse.com provided their thoughts on Rick Pitino stealing some of the spotlight from his son:
Rick Pitino screaming at Gophers that they had no timeouts and Peyton Siva busting up laughing was my favorite (OK, only) moment of the NIT— Eamonn Brennan (@eamonnbrennan) April 4, 2014
Based solely on watching this NIT broadcast, you'd think Rick Pitino actually coached Minnesota or SMU. Lots of screen time.— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) April 4, 2014
After a tight first half in which neither team ever truly stole the show, both teams traded blows from different spots on the court. While SMU stuck to their system of dominating inside the paint, Minnesota worked from the outside in during the first half.
PonyFans.com provides a look at the stats for the Gophers heading into the locker rooms:
No secret that @LarryBrownSMU prefers 2s over 3s — 10 of UM's 18 FGs from behind arc (Golden Gophers have made 5)— PonyFans.com (@PonyFans) April 3, 2014
30-27, UM, at half Gophers hit 5 of 7 3s — have missed 6 straight since— PonyFans.com (@PonyFans) April 3, 2014
The perimeter game was slowed early in the second half as the Mustangs came out with energy to take the lead, but it remained a back-and-forth game with just over a minute remaining.
Minnesota would regain the lead on free throws, but SMU took it right back. That was when Austin Hollins once again turned it on. The senior got off a shot from the right side of the key and drained it to give the Gophers a 62-59 lead.
The Gophers' official Twitter account was a bit excited following the play:
Which team will make the NCAA tournament next year?
On the other end, one of two free throws helped SMU cut into the lead, but Minnesota would do the same on its next possession with Andre Hollins at the line. Following another two from the Mustangs, Hollins would go back to the charity stripe and get both.
With just 4.8 seconds remaining on the clock, Pitino opted to foul Nick Russell, who was 4-4 at the line at that point. But Russell would miss the first free throw, all but sealing the victory.
While it wasn't the NCAA tournament like Minnesota was hoping for, claiming the NIT title is still a monumental achievement during the first season for Richard Pitino. The 31-year-old matched up with Larry Brown, a life-long coach who has found success at every level of the game.
Brown spoke about the job that Pitino did this year, per Fuller:
Tubby left him a good group. And (Pitino has) done an amazing job. When you follow a coach who has good values and kids play the right way, it's a lot easier to come in. But that doesn't take anything away from what he's done.
The Gophers now come away with confidence that the system they are playing under Pitino is a success. Losing a senior like Austin Hollins will be tough for the program, but with Andre Hollins and Mathieu returning, Minnesota could be a force in the Big Ten next season.
Along with the fact that the Gophers have multiple players returning, history is also on their side moving forward, as the Twitter account Per Capita notes:
5 of the last 7 NIT champions have reached the Sweet 16 within 2 years. WSU won in 2011 and had a Final Four run in 2013. #FinishTheRightWay— PerCapita (@_percapita) April 3, 2014
Being shut out of the NCAA tournament this season may have been tough for Minnesota fans, but there is reason for optimism with the confidence the team gained from the NIT championship run.
This Gophers team will be one to watch next season.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter.