MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Austin Hollins, who's played more basketball games for Minnesota than any other player, saved his best for his last appearance at Williams Arena.
Hollins had a career-high 32 points, including six straight free throws in the final minute, to lead the Gophers to an 81-73 win over Southern Mississippi and a spot in the NIT semifinals.
Playing in his school-record 139th game, Hollins scored 12 straight points in a key stretch of the first half that wiped out an eight-point deficit. He made all 10 of his foul shots and was 6-for-11 from beyond the arc.
"It's top-five, definitely," said Hollins, responding to a question by several teammates who crashed the postgame media scrum in the Gophers' locker room.
"We knew coming in that would be a key in regard to trying to contain him," Southern Mississippi coach Donnie Tyndall said. "Obviously, we didn't do a great job there."
The Gophers play Florida State or Louisiana Tech on Tuesday, with the championship two days later.
Neil Watson scored 16 points to lead Southern Mississippi, who had a 37-27 edge in rebounds. Daveon Boardingham added 15.
Southern Mississippi tied a school record for victories. All the Golden Eagles' losses came on the road
Although the goal for Minnesota at the beginning of the season was to make the NCAA tournament, first-year coach Richard Pitino said playing - and winning - at a high level is something to build on.
"What's great about our team, they're really enjoying this," he said. "Playing with passion, playing with pride."
The Gophers (23-13) will be playing at Madison Square Garden with a chance to erase a little bit of the sting from 2012, when they were thumped by Stanford in the NIT final.
"We got a new team, new coach and we expect to go in there and win this whole thing," said Hollins, who along with Malik Smith and Maverick Ahanmisi, head into the final games of their careers. Hollins scored 10 points in that 75-51 drubbing by the Cardinal when the Gophers were coached by Tubby Smith. Five current Gophers played in that game two years ago.
"It's a building experience, it's momentum into next season, and time for our seniors to continue their careers," said Joey King, who scored 15 points to reach double figures in all three of Minnesota's NIT games.
The Gophers started out slow against Southern Mississippi, trailing 33-25 late in the first half when Hollins got hot. He hit a pair of 3-pointers, converting a four-point play with a foul shot on the second one, then added another 3 and a floating layup that put the Gophers in the lead at 37-35.
Hollins hit a 3-pointer then converted three straight foul shots to build Minnesota's lead to 62-49 when the Golden Eagles (29-7) inched their way back in the game.
A basket by Boardingham cut the deficit to 78-73 with 17.5 seconds left, but Hollins hit two free throws and the Gophers were headed to the NIT semifinals for the seventh time. That includes two appearances that have been vacated.
The trip to New York City is also a homecoming for Pitino, who spent plenty of time at the Garden while his father Rick coached the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, and Providence College.
"My roots are really there, it's exciting for me," Pitino said. "I had a lot of great moments as an assistant coach, we won some Big East tournaments.
"There's no better place in all of college basketball than to play in Madison Square Garden."