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Men's basketball: Gophers advance in NIT

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sports Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The sparse Williams Arena crowd was about as lifeless as the Gophers’ players were on the court until about 90 seconds left in the first half of Tuesday night’s 88-81 NIT opening win over High Point.

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That’s when Mo Walker threw down a dunk.

Seconds later, Austin Hollins leaped over the opposing bench going for a loose ball.

If that wasn’t enough to get fans excited, Joey King’s three-pointer capped a 12-3 run for a nine-point halftime lead.

Whew.

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino still wore a look of concern going into the locker room after his team clearly suffered from a post-NCAA selection show hangover early in the first half.

Pitino had to rely on rarely used senior reserve Maverick Ahanmisi more than he planned to. But Ahanmisi, who averaged 2.1 points in 8.6 minutes a game this season, delivered with a career high 21 points on 6-for-11 shooting from the field and 8 for 10 from the free-throw line.

Starting junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu left the game early in the second half because of a lower-body injury. Mathieu fell hard behind the basket after being fouled on a layup in the first half. He had to be helped off the floor, but he returned to the game and started the second half.

The Gophers (21-13) likely were being cautious with Mathieu because they’ll need him Sunday when they play the winner of Tuesday night’s Utah-St. Mary’s game at Williams Arena.

Minnesota received a No. 1 seed in the NIT on Sunday — a consolation prize for failing to reach its goals of making the NCAA tournament.

Players said the right things leading up to Tuesday’s game. They talked about wanting to get all the way to the NIT championship game in New York, just as a few of them did in 2012.

They seemingly were looking forward to the opportunity to continue playing. But then came game day.

About 15 minutes before tipoff, the teams were warming up in front of roughly 2,000 fans.

A year earlier, the Gophers were playing in front of a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, in their first postseason game in the NCAA tournament’s second round against UCLA.

They were fortunate then to get selected as a No. 11 seed. That motivated them to a 20-point victory over the sixth-seeded Bruins.

On Tuesday night, High Point looked like the team for most of the game hoping to prove something in the NIT.

But Minnesota opened the second half with Walker starting at center in place of Elliott Eliason. He provided an immediate boost with four of his 13 points in the first minute.

Hollins’ jumper gave Minnesota a 47-32 lead, but High Point went on a 23-13 run to make it a five-point game with just under eight minutes left.

But King’s two free throws answered the rally for the Gophers, who wouldn’t let the Panthers get any closer.

King, an Eagan native, finished with his second straight double-digit scoring game with 14 points and seven rebounds.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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