New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of top seeds get together in the World's Most Famous Arena, as the SMU Mustangs take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the title game of the 2014 National Invitation Tournament.
The Golden Gophers are back in the championship round of the tournament for the second time in the last three years, having lost to Stanford in 2012 by a score of 75-51, although that setback came with Tubby Smith as the head coach, and now the leader is Richard Pitino.
Richard, the son of Louisville's Rick Pitino, had some stumbling blocks during the Big Ten campaign, but the team still finished strong enough to warrant an invite to the NIT and so far it has yet to disappoint. Since losing to Wisconsin, a team which is in the NCAA's Final Four, in the conference tournament, the Gophers have gone on to take down High Point, Saint Mary's and Southern Miss, all at Williams Arena. Two nights ago, the squad slipped by Florida State in overtime by a final of 67-64.
While Minnesota is being led into battle by a fresh-faced head coach, the opposite is true for the surprising Mustangs who have the legendary Larry Brown to thank for their success this season. Brown, no stranger to this court after coaching in the NBA beginning in the 1970's and even taking a turn with the New York Knicks (2005-06), has pushed SMU to a total of 27 wins this season, the second-most in program history.
Already the only head coach ever to capture both an NBA title (Detroit, 2004) and an NCAA championship (Kansas, 1988), Brown could distance himself even further from the rest of the coaching community by bringing home the trophy for this event as well. The Mustangs, who are now 4-2 in this tourney all- time, began their run this time around with home wins against UC Irvine (68-54), LSU (80-67) and California (67-65), followed by a 65-59 decision versus Clemson in the semifinals in New York two nights ago.
Officially, this is the 13th appearance for the Gophers in the NIT, excluding showings in both 1996 and 1998 that were vacated by the NCAA. Unfortunately, the latter appearance saw Minnesota defeat Penn State in the title game, 79-72, which means the only existing NIT Championship for the Gophers remains the 62-61 verdict versus Georgetown back in 1993. Overall, the squad is 26-12 in the tourney.
In terms of an all-time series between these two schools, SMU owns a 6-3 advantage, although all nine previous meetings took place in consecutive years between 1954-1963. This will be the first clash on a neutral floor.
After a close call against Cal, the Mustangs found themselves trailing by 13 points in the second half against Clemson in the semifinals, but battled back to eventually survive the six-point outcome. Markus Kennedy, who had a key 3- point play in the meeting, finished with a game-high 21 points and pulled down nine rebounds for the Mustangs, followed by Nic Moore and Nick Russell who accounted for 13 and 10 points, respectively.
In addition to holding the Tigers to just 40.0 percent shooting from the floor, SMU also produced a rebounding advantage of 35-25 in order to give itself a fighting chance down the stretch.
An All-American Athletic Conference First Team selection, Moore is the overall scoring leader for the Mustangs this season with 13.5 ppg, connecting on 71- of-160 (.444) tries from behind the 3-point line, not to mention pacing the group with 174 assists. Moore has made good on 8-of-19 attempts beyond the arc in the tournament, as well as handing out a team-best 20 assists, but his 11.8 ppg falls behind Kennedy who has upped his overall effort on the season (12.4 ppg) to 15.5 ppg, to go along with 7.8 rpg.
Maurice Walker saved the day for the Golden Gophers in the semifinals as he knocked down six free throws in overtime, outscoring Florida State in the frame by himself (6-4), as Minnesota captured the three-point win. Walker, who shot only 1-of-7 from the floor, finished with nine points and six rebounds, while Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu did most of the damage with 17 points apiece. Also having a tough time from the field was Andre Hollins (3-of-10), but he still came up with 13 points for a squad that survived with a mere 38.9 percent success from the floor overall.
Over the course of 37 games, Andre Hollins has been the leader on the scoreboard with an average of 13.6 ppg, although he has been less than reliable with just 37.9 percent accuracy from the field. Austin Hollins checks in with another 12.2 ppg as the pair have combined for 127 triples, nearly half the unit's total of 265. Mathieu, the top passer with 153 assists, pitches in with another 12.0 ppg for a program posting 71.6 ppg.