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Stanford crushes Gophers, 75-51, in NIT championship game

By Amelia Rayno, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

NEW YORK — For six possessions after getting his fifth foul, Rodney Williams sat slumped over his knees on the Gophers bench, unable to pull his face from beneath his sweat-soaked jersey, unable to watch the rest of the 75-51 Stanford barrage in the NIT championship game.

When a team finishes the season with a loss like this one, it’s hard to see anything else.

“After I fouled out, it finally hit me that it’s over for the season and we didn’t come out on top,” a red-eyed Williams said afterward.

A loss like this leaves players shaking, throwing things. A loss like this puts pits in stomachs and makes viewers question everything they had seen leading up to the moment. And with no games left, it’s tough to leave it behind, hard not to dwell on its lingering burn.

Perhaps there was no better image Thursday of how far the Gophers have come, and how hard they fell, than the crumpled shoulders — including those of the team’s two leaders, Williams and Andre Hollins, who both fouled out in the final five minutes — that lined the bench as the clock waned.

“It definitely didn’t even feel real out there, after the buzzer went off and the score was where it was at,” Williams said. “But it goes like that some days and it just happened to be like that for us today.”

After charging to the NIT final by winning three road games and then a semifinal over top-seeded Washington, the Gophers (23-15) were trampled with the title on the line at Madison Square Garden. The Cardinal (26-11) beat them up inside and forced them to play panicked throughout the second half after a strong run that spanned the end of the first half and at the start of the second.

The Gophers led 21-17 less than 9 minutes before halftime, but the Julian Welch layup that put them there would be their last field goal of the half. With Stanford playing stifling defense around the basket, they went 0-for-10 from the floor the rest of the way. Meanwhile, the Cardinal built a 31-25 lead heading into the break, then scored the first eight points of the second half to go up 40-25.

“We had some opportunities, but when you’re missing shots like that, you get a little frustrated or you pick up a foul you lose a little … you get a little discouraged,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of his team, which shot only 37.3 percent from the floor.

That’s when things got sloppy. The Gophers were missing shots, picking up fouls and turning the ball over at an alarming rate, finishing with 22 turnovers. And most important, the two stars who had driven the NIT push disappeared.

Williams, after scoring 12 points in the first half, didn’t score again in the second, as the junior forward was saddled with foul trouble and frustration. Hollins finished with four points, no assists and five turnovers, the freshman point guard’s worst game since the nonconference schedule, if not the whole season.

“That’s just unacceptable for a point guard,” said a watery-eyed Hollins, eyes looking through the ceiling. “Mentally, I let little things get to me … you know, I kind of wasn’t mentally tough today.”

Through the shock and disappointment, there is a real silver lining from the postseason. Despite the poor final performance, the Gophers, using a lineup without any seniors, showed major improvement from their play against Big Ten competition.

History shows a good performance in the NIT can be a springboard for future success. The Gophers won the tournament in 1993 and 1998 (the latter has since been vacated) and made the NCAA tournament each of the following seasons.

“It’s a learning experience, and we would be foolish to go into next season just thinking about this one game,” Hollins said. “We have come along as a team throughout this year. … We persevered and we stayed strong. I think this tournament helped us a lot.”

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