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Hawkins' free throws in final seconds boost U past Butler 73-72 in NIT

Ben Johnson's philosophy on his Gophers men's basketball team playing in the NIT differed from some of his peers who decided to decline a bid to extend their season this week.

Johnson thought the NIT would be an opportunity to give his program more exposure. His players could build momentum before the offseason, if they could taste winning again.

The Gophers had the right mentality going into Tuesday's opening round.

Dawson Garcia scored a team-high 25 points. Elijah Hawkins hit two clutch late free throws, to go with his 15 assists to lead the Gophers to a 73-72 victory against Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

"It's great to get a win on the road against a team that was hungry, just like we were," Johnson said on the postgame radio show. "I thought our guys did a great job of making necessary plays when we needed to make them."

The Gophers (19-14), who advanced to play the winner of Wednesday's game between Indiana State and SMU, needed an answer down the stretch — and they got it from their two veteran leaders.

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Butler took a three-point lead on Jahmyl Telfort's jumper with 39 seconds left that could've easily signaled the end of the line for Johnson's squad.

Garcia's layup with 22 seconds to play made it a 72-71 deficit. After Parker Fox forced a turnover, Hawkins, who had 11 points, was fouled going to the rim. He drilled one free throw. And he didn't flinch after a timeout to sink the second with five seconds left for the go-ahead point.

"We had to be better closing with winning plays," Johnson said. "I want to think of the big picture. We want to do our best to keep playing and keep winning — being in environments like that so we can grow."

Pharrel Payne had 11 points, and Cam Christie and Fox each added 10 for the Gophers, who ended a three-game losing streak on a night that had all the intensity of an NCAA tournament game.

After falling in their first game of the Big Ten tournament last week, Minnesota's players were excited to play again after several teams opted out of the NIT, including Oklahoma, St. John's, Indiana and Pittsburgh.

The Gophers lost five of six games entering Tuesday, but they outplayed the Bulldogs early with an 11-0 run to take an eight-point lead midway through the first half.

Telfort was a difficult matchup for the U frontcourt with 16 of his 25 points coming in the first half for a 38-36 Butler halftime lead.

In the second half, the Gophers trailed by seven points before back-to-back threes from Christie and Mike Mitchell Jr. fueled a 10-2 run to take a 54-53 lead.

BOXSCORE: Gophers 73, Butler 72

The Bulldogs responded with consecutive threes of their own for the seventh lead change. Trying to end a six-game losing streak away from home, the Gophers played consistently inside-out through Garcia, Payne and Fox. They scored 38 points in the paint but also forced 14 turnovers with 10 steals.

Both teams entered the game with identical 9-11 records in conference play in the Big Ten and Big East, respectively. But the Bulldogs had impressive wins against Creighton and Marquette.

The Gophers had their best wins at home against Michigan State and Northwestern, so Tuesday was a big step forward.

Not knowing if they would play again, Minnesota's players talked after the Big Ten tournament second-round loss last week about how much they could accomplish by staying together next season. They had a chance to tap into that potential in the NIT.

The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.