Gophers Excited Over NIT Invitation

Tubby Smith and his players were happy to get the news Sunday night.

"We are very grateful to get this opportunity to take part in the 75th annual NIT," Smith said after his 19-14 Gophers, who won two of their last three games to get to 19-14, learned they would be traveling to Philadelphia to face La Salle on Wednesday night.

"We have been playing well of late and this gives our young team the opportunity to experience what postseason basketball is all about."

The Gophers, who ended the regular season by snapping a six-game losing streak with a home win over Nebraska, helped send bubble team Northwestern to the very same NIT with an overtime win over the Wildcats in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Tenth-seeded Minnesota then failed to hold a late lead (a common theme down the stretch) and lost to 10th-ranked Michigan, in overtime, in the conference quarterfinals, the Gophers' fourth straight loss to a ranked team.

They played both games in the tourney without injured center Ralph Sampson III (knee) and almost got to the semifinals.

So, now they head into the NIT, a fair spot for any team from a big conference with that many wins.

They go in as a No. 6 seed in their region, Region 2, facing the No. 3 Explorers from the Atlantic 10. The winner gets the winner of the Miami-Valparaiso game.

Freshman guard Andre Hollis led the Gophers in scoring in both Big Ten tournament games, with a career-high 25 in the win and then 21 in the loss.

"There's a lot of positives we can take out of this," sophomore guard Austin Hollins said after the Michigan loss. "We played with a lot of heart; we played with a lot of aggressiveness."

Now, they get to play some more.

NOTES, QUOTES

Gophers struggled down the stretch

--Minnesota enters the NIT with seven losses in its last nine games, but with two wins in its last three. The Gophers, who lost their best player, Trevor Mbakwe, to a knee injury seven games into the season, hit the NIT with a 19-14 record.

--The Gophers are 18-11 in NIT games and won the tournament in 1993 and 1998. However, the '98 title was vacated because of academic fraud.

Minnesota beat Penn State for the '93 title and Georgetown for the title that was later surrendered.

--This is the second time Minnesota has faced a La Salle team. The Gophers beats the Explorers, 92-87, in the 1965-66 season, so it's been awhile.

BY THE NUMBERS: 0-3 -- Coach Tubby Smith's NCAA/NIT record as Minnesota coach heading into this year's NIT.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've definitely got a really, really good team coming back next year. We're just losing Ralph (Sampson III), and we may get Trevor (Mbakwe) back (via medical redshirt). So going into next year, we definitely can contend to get another shot at the Big Ten title." -- Coach Tubby Smith after his team lost to Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME:

--at La Salle, NIT, March 14

KEY MATCHUPS: The Explorers are a tough group that comes out of a conference that was won by St. Bonaventure but also sent Temple, Saint Louis and Xavier to the NCAA Tournament. La Salle is one of four conference teams to head to the NIT.

The Explorers, who won 21 games and were 9-7 in their league, are led by guards Earl Pettis, a senior, and Ramon Galloway, a junior, who are averaging 15.3 and 14.2 points per game, respectively.

FUTURES MARKET: Freshman G Andre Hollins had a productive stay at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. He scored a career-high 25 points, shooting 10-for-17 from the floor and 5-for-10 from 3-point range, in an overtime win over Northwestern in the first round. He then scored 21 points, despite going just 6-for-18 from the floor, 2-for-9 from 3-point range, in the overtime loss to No. 10 Michigan.

"I'm very proud and encouraged by the way he played," coach Tubby Smith said after the Michigan game. "Andre's got a lot of heart. He's a very skilled basketball player. You can see just by ? he makes shots. He really played great. He has stamina. He has good endurance. Tonight, 44 minutes. And chasing Trey Burke around is a tough job."

PLAYER NOTES:

--Freshman G Andre Hollins was disappointed his team came up just short of No. 10 Michigan, but said, "This is a great experience for all of us. I think it's a testament to what we can do as a team. Unfortunately, we didn't execute at the end. It's just the little things that count."

--Junior F Rodney Williams, coming off the bench, had 12 points and six rebounds in the win over Northwestern and then delivered 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots in the loss to Michigan.

--Freshman C Elliott Eliason, playing for the injured Ralph Sampson III, had 11 rebounds in the first game and nine in the second.

--Sampson missed both Big Ten tournament games with a knee injury. There was no word on his availability for Tuesday.


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