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Gophers season ends in NIT second-round loss to Indiana State

Gophers season ends in NIT second-round loss to Indiana State

The Gophers men’s basketball team made significant progress this season. The U more than doubling its win total from nine to 19, and while picked to finish last in the Big Ten Conference, the Gophers were ninth in the 14-team league and advanced in their first postseason since 2019.

But it came to an end Sunday with a 76-64 loss to top seed Indiana State in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament at Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Ind.

Gophers head coach Ben Johnson called Indiana State worthy of making the NCAA tournament, but they were passed over for an at-large berth. The Sycamores (30-6) move on to play No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the NIT quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Tuesday

“It was a great challenge,” Johnson said in KFAN postgame. “It was a tough way to go out, but I told our guys, ‘You can’t let one game dictate how we were for the course of the year.’ I think from the very beginning when nobody had us in anything to be able to orchestrate a new crew and to figure out and understand winning. … There is more to be had. Hopefully (the players) leave here a little bit hungry but also satisfied (in) knowing they took the right step.”

Minnesota (19-15) was a 7.5-point underdog Sunday and made it interesting in the second half with an 11-0 run to cut the Sycamores’ lead to 52-49 with 12 minutes remaining. But Indiana State never trailed and separated from the U yet again to win comfortably.

The Gophers’ best player, Dawson Garica, didn’t score until hitting a pair of free throws with 13 minutes remaining in the second half. He finished with six points and 12 rebounds.

Garcia put himself on the bench in the first half. He was called for a personal foul, his second of the game, with 10 minutes left in the half. Then he talked trash with Xavier Bledson and both players were hit with a technical fouls. It was Dawson’s third, and he sat for a long stretch.

Indiana State had been separating itself before Garcia went to the bench, but it was an onslaught afterward. The Sycamores used a 24-7 run to take a 33-15 lead.

The Gophers responded with a 12-2 run to make it 35-27. They did it without point guard Elijah Hawkins, who went to the bench with an apparent left hip injury. The teams traded baskets, and Indiana State led 38-28 at the break.

“We didn’t get off to a good start, and then when we started to get our rhythm, it is toward the end of the game. So you just run out of time,” Johnson said on the radio.

Hawkins returned for the second half, but he couldn’t last, sitting back down with 15 minutes remaining. He finished with 10 points and one assist in 22 minutes played.

“He tried, and it just had too much pain,” Johnson told Mike Grimm. “In a game like this that is really physical, you’ve got to have everything and got to be able to move. He just couldn’t go. Credit to him for trying.”

Indiana State is having its best season since Larry Bird starred there in the late 1970s. Indiana State won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title but missed out on the NCAA tournament as Drake won the conference tournament. Their bespectacled current leading scorer, Robbie Avila, has a handful of nicknames, including “Larry Nerd.”

But Avila had an off shooting afternoon and finished with 11 points, going 1 of 6 from 3-point range. Ryan Connell led all scorers with 23 points.

This is the Gophers’ first NIT appearance since they won the championship in 2014; they won their first-round matchup 73-72 over Butler on Tuesday.

Johnson said he will meet with players when they return to Minnesota this week and determine how many with remaining eligibility will come back for next season. If the majority returns and other additions are made, the Gophers will be in position to take another step next season.

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