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USA TODAY Sports Minnesota guard Andre Hollins takes a shot against Southern Methodist during the first half of the NIT championship game Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Men's basketball: Gophers edge SMU for NIT championship

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By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

NEW YORK — Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins wrapped up their first season together at the University of Minnesota during the Gophers’ NIT run in 2012.

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The Hollinses’ final season together was bittersweet. The Memphis, Tenn., natives didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament, but they still were able to celebrate their final game together as they helped Minnesota to its third NIT title Thursday night in a 65-63 victory over Southern Methodist at Madison Square Garden.

Andre Hollins, a junior, sank two free throws with 4.8 seconds left for a three-point lead to seal the Gophers’ first NIT crown since their since-vacated season of 1997-98.

The Gophers (25-13), who also won the NIT in 1993, should be a lot better next season, but this was quite the run.

The Mustangs (27-10) were the darlings of the experts as the biggest NCAA tournament snub this year, especially with former NBA coach Larry Brown gaining national attention in his comeback.

But after the disappointment of failing to make the NCAA tournament, Minnesota kept its focus on returning to New York, where it lost in the NIT final in 2012 in a blowout to Stanford.

Austin Hollins, a senior who had 19 points Thursday and was named tournament MVP, was on that team. So were several of his current teammates who wouldn’t let another loss happen this time around.

SMU led by as many as seven points in the second half, but DeAndre Mathieu’s free throws followed by a steal and layup from Austin Hollins gave Minnesota a 57-54 lead with 1:52 left.

The Mustangs answered when Nick Russell nailed a three-pointer to tie the score on the ensuing possession.

In Tuesday’s semifinals, Minnesota blew a chance to win in regulation when Malik Smith missed two free throws in a 67-64 overtime over against Florida State. But the Gophers were able to hang on Thursday with some clutch shots and free-throw shooting.

Joey King, who fouled out against Florida State, bounced back with two free throws for a 59-57 lead at 1:14.

SMU’s Nic Moore tied the score, but Austin Hollins’ three-pointer with 46 seconds remaining was a dagger shot.

First-year Gophers coach Richard Pitino didn’t have much punch inside both against either Florida State or SMU. Junior center Elliott Eliason returned from an ankle injury but played limited minutes Thursday night.

The starting frontcourt of Mo Walker and King had only 11 points combined, but it didn’t matter.

Minnesota loses its all-time leader in games played, Austin Hollins, next season, but four starters could return, including the backcourt of Andre Hollins and Mathieu, who combined for 27 points Thursday.

“Nobody picked us to even be in contention,” Andre Hollins said Wednesday. “They didn’t know what type of team we had. They picked us last in the Big Ten. They probably didn’t think we’d get to the CBI. We worked hard to get here.”

Hollins, a lock for the all-tournament team, was impressed with the way Austin Hollins, his senior teammate and roommate, played in the NIT, averaging 16.8 points and 4.3 assists in the first four games leading to the final, including a career-best 32-point effort against Southern Mississippi in his last home game.

“It’s your last go-around,” Andre Hollins said. “He’s leaving it all out there. That’s what he’s doing. He’s showing the world what he can do.”

Andre Hollins, who led the Gophers in scoring for the second consecutive season, didn’t live up to his high expectations this season. The junior guard wasn’t the same after injuring his ankle in a Jan. 22 win over Wisconsin. His 13-point effort against Florida State was only his second double-digit scoring game in the previous six games.

But Andre and Austin Hollins combined for 19 points in the first half Thursday to give the Gophers a 30-27 lead.

Austin Hollins remembers talking to his buddy two years ago about building on the NIT experience for the following season, but there won’t be another year for them both.

“That was definitely something we talked about, gaining that experience and using it for the next year,” Austin Hollins said. “Now these guys have to do that.”

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

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