The Minnesota Golden Gophers made key plays down the stretch on Thursday as they overcame poor three-point and free-throw shooting to defeat SMU for the 2014 National Invitation Tournament title, the program's third since 1993.
Minnesota had very little trouble scoring inside the arc against the Mustangs, going 17-of-26. However, a 7-of-23 performance from downtown and 10-of-17 shooting from the foul line nearly derailed the Gophers' NIT title hopes.
In the end, Austin Hollins was the star for Richard Pitino's squad, scoring a game-high 19 points and sinking a huge three-pointer late to seal the deal, as pointed out by ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla:
Lionel Hollins told @johnreporters & I this week that he wasn't sure son Austin was D-1 player. Ended career as NIT MVP with pop watching.— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) April 4, 2014
Below, we'll revisit the top performances from Thursday's NIT Championship Game.
Austin Hollins, G, Minnesota
After turning in Thursday's top performance, Hollins earned Most Outstanding Player honors, per the Associated Press via ESPN.com: "Ah, man it feels great. It's a blessing to be able to finish the season on a win. Few teams get to do that."
Adding to the pressure of playing in a championship game at Madison Square Garden, Thursday marked the final game of Hollins' college career. His 19 points weren't a career-high, but his offensive efficiency and defensive prowess were each deciding factors.
Hollins went 8-of-12 from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. Defensively, Hollins had a game-high four steals, accounting for half of Minnesota's eight total.
However, the biggest play of the night was his three-pointer with 46 seconds left, which put the Gophers ahead 62-59. The Mustangs would never recover.
Nic Moore, G, SMU
SMU point guard Nic Moore had his fair share of struggles from downtown on Thursday, but was 5-of-7 from inside the arc and 6-of-8 from the foul line. He would finish with 17 points to lead the Mustangs.
But Moore also created scoring opportunities for his teammates, dishing out seven assists while only committing two turnovers in 36 minutes.
Moore's 1-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc stands out and will likely haunt him following such a narrow defeat, but there's no doubt he was the biggest reason SMU had a chance to win on Thursday.
Deandre Mathieu, G, Minnesota
Minnesota junior guard Deandre Mathieu was overshadowed by Hollins on Thursday night but was still able to turn in one of the most effective games of his career.
The 5'9", 165-pound guard scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the floor and also recorded seven assists to lead the Gophers in that category. What's more, Mathieu scored five of his 13 points after Minnesota fell behind by seven with under six minutes to play.
Mathieu also proved to be a difficult matchup for Moore on Thursday, posting a similar stat line and forcing his fellow 5'9" point guard to work hard on both ends, per GopherIllustrated.com's Ryan James:
Watching Deandre Mathieu and Nic Moore is like watching Tom and Jerry back in the day. These two are so fast chasing each other.— Ryan James (@RyanJamesMN) April 4, 2014
Like Moore, Mathieu has another year of eligibility and will have an opportunity to build off of his strong NIT Championship Game performance in 2014-15.
With Austin Hollins leaving, Mathieu and Andre Hollins will lead the Gophers' back court as seniors next season. Therefore, Minnesota will have the experience in key positions to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth. The Gophers were a bubble team this year and can use their NIT success to take the next step under Pitino's watch next season.
Keep in mind that this season marked Pitino's first as Minnesota's head coach. Unless he leaves for another opportunity this offseason, it appears that the best is yet to come.
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