MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Two years ago, Minnesota embraced the National Invitation Tournament enough to reach the championship game.
The Gophers have the depth and talent to win this consolation event if they stay engaged the way many major-conference teams fail to.
Maverick Ahanmisi scored a career-high 21 points, and Minnesota moved on with an 88-81 victory over High Point on Tuesday.
“You find out who wants to keep playing and who doesn’t,” coach Richard Pitino said.
Joey King had 14 points and seven rebounds and Mo Walker and Andre Hollins each pitched in 13 points for the Gophers (21-13), the top seed in their quadrant. They will host a second-round game on Sunday against either Utah or St. Mary’s.
“They had every reason to come out tonight and maybe not be really excited about playing. I know the feeling of being a team that’s on the bubble,” said High Point coach Scott Cherry, a former South Carolina assistant.
Minnesota is 29-13 over 15 all-time NIT appearances, including two titles and two runner-up finishes.
The lead was as big as 47-32 for the Gophers early in the second half, but the Panthers (16-15) pushed back despite foul trouble for John Brown and Adam Weary, two of their top three scorers. Brown, the Big South Player of the Year award winner, had 19 points in 21 minutes, which matched his season low.
“We can’t win games in our league without our two best players. We certainly ain’t beating a team out of the Big Ten,” Cherry said.
Minnesota, however, had point guard DeAndre Mathieu for only 13 minutes because of a hip injury he aggravated in a fall after a hard foul on his way to the hoop. The Gophers also had a significant size advantage that contributed to the 25 fouls called on the Panthers.
With students on spring break from classes, the arena was only about a quarter full, but the announced crowd of 3,493 was into the game.
King’s high-low flip over a double team in the paint found Walker for a dunk late in the first half. Then Austin Hollins chased a steal so hard he had to leap over the High Point bench after reaching the edge of the elevated floor. Hollins hustled back on the court for defense, the Gophers got the ball back and he assisted on King’s 3-pointer on the other end with 26 seconds left before the break for a 38-29 lead.
“We love this game. We wanted to play it, regardless of who it is, where it is,” Walker said.
Brown dropped down a couple of jaw-dropping dunks off lob passes, but he fouled out with 2:40 left and the Gophers leading by seven. Devante Wallace scored 20 points for the Panthers, who fell to 0-5 all-time against Big Ten teams. That includes a 2008 loss here to the Gophers when Tubby Smith, who played for the Panthers in the early 1970s, was the head coach.
This was the first NIT experience for High Point, which is in just its 15th season of NCAA Division I competition. The Panthers played in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament last year. The first-time Big South regular season champions lost in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, so Coastal Carolina — which lost to Minnesota here in November — grabbed the automatic NCAA tournament bid instead.
The Gophers were disappointed to be excluded from the NCAA tournament, but they realized where they were headed after losing by 26 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals last week. They didn’t even get together to watch the selection show.
The Gophers had trouble defensively, adjusting to the small lineup the Panthers used, but the effort was obviously there. Ahanmisi, one of three seniors on the team who Pitino has said he regretted not playing more, epitomized that. This game accounted for almost 30 percent of his season scoring.
“Credit goes out to my teammates and my coaches. They’ve always had confidence in me whether I’m playing or not,” he said.
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