NEW YORK — More attention was placed on the well-known head coaches in Thursday night’s National Invitation Tournament Championship Game, but the players coached by Richard Pitino and Larry Brown stole the show in a highly competitive and entertaining 65-63 win by Pitino’s Minnesota Golden Gophers, who captured their second official NIT title at Madison Square Garden.
In a battle of one seeds, the SMU Mustangs (27-10) — this year’s biggest NCAA tournament snub — went on a 9-1 run, to lead, 53-46, with just under six minutes left. However, Minnesota (25-13) scored the next seven points, in a span of just 1:14, to set the stage for the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, senior guard, Austin Hollins (game-high 19 points), to put the Gophers up for good, 62-59, on a right-wing 3-pointer, with 45.7 seconds left.
“It was a great feeling,” Hollins said, who was at a loss for words. “I can’t even describe it.”
His coach filled in, though.
“Big-time shot,” Pitino said. “That’s the way he should have walked away as a Gopher.”
Hollins, the son of another accomplished basketball coach (Lionel Hollins), made 8 of 12 shots, including half of his six 3-point tries in a game that featured 17 lead changes and 14 ties.
Speaking of coaches’ sons, Pitino a second-year head coach in his first year at Minnesota (following a season at Florida International), started a new string of titles in the Pitino family by guiding the Gophers to their third unofficial NIT championship (1993, 1998 – vacated due to academic fraud) one year after his father Rick Pitino — who sat near Minnesota’s bench one year after leading Louisville to the national title in last year’s NCAA tournament.
For Brown, a Hall of Fame, basketball lifer and ABA champion as a player (1969), with NCAA (1998, with Kansas) and NBA (2004, with Detroit) titles as a head coach, trying to add another type of championship at the Garden would have brought the Brooklyn native and graduate of Long Beach High School (on Long Island, New York) full circle, eight years after spending one season coaching the New York Knicks on the same floor.
Such and ending wasn’t meant to be though, as Minnesota — which nearly let a three-point, overtime, semifinal win at MSG get away, against fellow one seed Florida State two nights earlier — once again did just enough down the stretch to seal the victory.
A back-and-forth tone was set from the outset, with neither team securing more than a four-point lead, until a Hollins layup capped an 8-2 run that gave the Gophers the game’s largest lead, 30-24, with 2:12 left in an opening half that ended with Minnesota up, 30-27, after senior forward Shawn Williams (11 points) hit a 3-pointer.
SMU started the second half on an 11-4 run, to lead, 38-34, but five straight points by the Gophers moved Minnesota ahead, 43-42, with less than 11 minutes left in the game.
Responding with five consecutive points of their own, the Mustangs built a 49-45 edge which they extended to 53-46 on a dunk by sophomore forward Markus Kennedy (10 points, game-high eight rebounds), with 5:52 remaining.
After an immediate timeout, junior guard DeAndre Mathieu (who scored all 13 of his points in the second half), completed a 3-point play, before Hollins and senior forward Maurice Walker (three points, team-high seven rebounds) each scored on layups following offensive fouls by junior guard Ryan Manuel (three points, three turnovers).
“We didn’t handle prosperity very well,” Brown said. “[We] had some terrible turnovers in the guts of the game… got to give a lot of credit to Richard and his team… got down seven [points] and I thought he got their kids to dig in a little bit.”
Sophomore guard Nic Moore, who led SMU with 17 points, made one of two free throws with 4:17 left, to give the Mustangs their final lead, 54-53.
Two free throws by Mathieu and a layup from Hollins put the Gophers on top, 57-54, before senior guard Nick Russell (15 points) tied the game at 57-57, on a 3-pointer with 1:39 to go.
Answering a pair of free throws by sophomore forward Joey King (eight points) with two foul shots of his own, Moore that tied the game for a final time, 59-59, with 56.7 seconds left.
However, Moore only made the second of two free throws after Hollins’ clutch 3, allowing guard Andre Hollins (14 points) to extend Minnesota’s lead to 63-60, with 16.3 seconds remaining.
That Hollins, and Austin Hollins aren’t related, though they are often mistaken for being brothers because they share they same surname and home state (Tennessee).
While Austin largely carried the Gophers, it was Andre who sealed SMU’s fate by coolly sinking two free throws wih 4.8 seconds left, to push the Gophers’ lead to 65-62.
Russell missed a free throw with 3.5 seconds to go, and was then forced to miss the second, but he made it, to cut Minnesota’s lead to two points. The Gophers were able to inbound and pass the ball upcourt, as time ran out before the Mustangs could foul again.
“That was the plan, to make the first [free throw] and miss the second, but it was totally backwards,” Brown said.
Afterwards, the Jewish New Yorker who led a Dallas-based Methodist school to one of its most successful seasons in many years, said, “I’m proud of my team… we didn’t get in the NCAA [tournament]. We picked ourselves up and we competed at the highest level against quality team, and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
On the other side, Mathieu said, “It’s an awesome feeling. We’ve been here before (losing in the same game, two years ago) and we know what it feels like to be the other team walking off the floor, losing. We made it a point that we wanted to go win a championship and the guys worked extremely hard to get here.”
At 31 years old (42 years younger than Brown) Pitino had high praise for his counterpart.
“He is a Hall of Famer and an unbelievable coach, and I’ve got unbelievable respect for him. He’s how old? 73? He doesn’t look 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… and I really appreciate, for an older coach, he was very, very gracious to me, and that really means a lot. He’s a really good person [and] a phenomenal coach.”
Although the Mustangs won more games than the Gophers this season, Pitino not only beat Brown for the NIT title, but in terms of making program history, as well. Minnesota surpassed its school record for single-season wins by two victories, but SMU fell a win shy of tying its own school mark, set 26 years earlier.
Later, as the best player in this year’s NIT stood atop a ladder and cut down one of the Garden nets, his teammates serenaded him with “M-V-P!” chants.
“It’s a great feeling,” Hollins said of the moment. “I’ve been through the ups and downs with these guys and they are like brothers to me. So to be able to win this championship with this group was amazing.”