There is always something a bit odd about the NIT championship and celebrating the rejection trophy, but for plenty of teams there’s no shame in it, as Minnesota beat SMU 65-63 in a game that was as much about the coaching legacies involved than it was about actually walking away with the title.
It is the third NIT championship won by the Gophers, with coach Richard Pitino cutting down the nets for the first time. His father, Louisville head coach and two-time NCAA champion, Rick Pitino, said it was one of the highlights of his life, even if it meant sitting on the sidelines and not being involved. Larry Brown and SMU were a team many felt deserved an NCAA tournament berth but fell short when the selection committee got together. He was probably one three-point basket away from completing a trio of NBA, NCAA and NIT titles.
Austin Hollins, the son of former NBA head coach Lionel Hollins, was the one who’ll be remembered the most from this game. The Senior led Minnesota with 19 points, and more importantly hitting a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 46.1 seconds left. SMU only went to the line and made it a two-point game, but failed to miss the second shot from the line and get one last possession to win, also failing to foul after Minnesota grabbed the rebound, quickly running out what remained of the clock.
We made some big-time plays. Austin made a big-time 3. We gutted it out. That is a very good team. They’re a really good team. They deserve to be in the NCAA tournament. I’m really proud of our guys. I’m so happy for our seniors.
This made for quite the debut season for Pitino, leading Minnesota to their second final in three years, making up for a blowout loss to Stanford, something a lot of these players were part of.
SMU held a seven point lead with 5:52 left after a 9-1 run, but DeAndre Mathieu sparked one of his won with a 3-pointer, a steal and assist which led to a 7-0 surge from Minnesota to tie the game again. Minnesota had Andre Hollins make 3-of-4 from the line in the final 16.3 seconds to keep the lead intact before SMU’s last opportunity blew by. Mathieu scored all 13 of his points in the second half and finished with seven assists for the Gophers. Nic Moore led SMU with 17 points, Nick Russell added 15 points.
This was quite the season for Larry Brown as well, coaching for the Mustangs a second straight season, making this one a lot better than the first. Like Minnesota, SMU ended up being a #1 seed in the NIT and won its three home games before moving on to Madison Square Garden in hope of leaving this season with a sweet taste in his mouth.
The NIT begins as a consolation prize some schools aren’t even interested in, but it’s hard to say they feel lesser after going so far in it. If this is the beginning of something much greater for Minnesota under the young Pitino, there are far worse ways to start off a program-coach relationship.