Minnesota 73, Wake Forest 58
MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—For some teams, NIT seems to stand for “Not Interested. Thanks.” The Minnesota Gophers are always up for more games.
Vince Grier scored 18 points to lead Minnesota to a 73-58 victory over Wake Forest in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Wednesday night.
For the Gophers (16-14), this one was all about their seniors. Grier also had eight assists, seven rebounds and four steals. Moe Hargrow scored 15 points, Adam Boone added 13 points and J’son Stamper had 12 points and nine rebounds.
“Last shot,” Stamper said. “You never want to end it on a bad note.”
Minnesota, the fourth seed in its group, will play a second-round game next Tuesday against the winner of Friday’s Cincinnati-Charlotte matchup.
“I’ve had an opportunity to play in this tournament before,” said Hargrow, a member of the team that finished fourth in the NIT in 2003. “I wouldn’t mind finishing my career by going back to the Garden.”
That’s Madison Square Garden in New York, where the semifinals are held.
“I just want to get back home,” said Stamper, who was raised in the Bronx.
Chris Ellis led the Demon Deacons (17-17) with 12 points and six rebounds, and Justin Gray had 11 points and five assists. Eric Williams was held to eight points, and he and Gray—two bright spots during an ultimately disappointing season—finished a total of 16 points under their combined average.
“We couldn’t throw the ball in to Eric,” coach Skip Prosser said, noting his team’s 19 turnovers. “We kept throwing the ball out of bounds.”
The Gophers had plenty to do with that.
“Our team has been built on intensity, especially when we play well,” Boone said. “Out-scrapping other teams and playing defense.”
Minnesota gave a sparse crowd—announced at 2,643 with students on spring break, by far the smallest of the season—two highlight-reel sequences in an even, fast-paced first half in which neither team led by more than seven.
In the opening minutes, Grier leaped high to catch a lob pass from Hargrow with one hand and landed on the low block before popping right back up for an easy basket. Later, Stamper got a steal and started a fastbreak that he ended with a one-handed, back-spinning bounce pass that landed in a streaking Rico Tucker’s hands for a layup.
The fans who were there were fairly loud, though, and they howled over a curious call at the beginning of the second half that negated a nifty drive to the hoop by Grier when he was whistled for charging.
During a brief conference by the officials to determine how much time should be on the clock following a dead ball in the final minutes, one man hollered, “It’s an NIT game!”
The Gophers played like it was more than that, pulling away down the stretch while Grier showed off the quickness, soft touch and knack for finding the basket that made him an All-Big Ten Conference selection last year. After breaking a finger in the season opener that kept him out of the next five games, Grier wasn’t as consistently dominant as he was as a junior—but he clearly remained Minnesota’s best player. He has 47 points in the Gophers’ last two games.
“I think you get in these games and you really see who your team is and what their character is,” said Minnesota coach Dan Monson, who took the Golden Gophers to the NCAA tournament last year.
Ranked 18th in The Associated Press preseason poll, the Demon Deacons finished last in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference after losing star Chris Paul to the NBA. They won twice in last week’s ACC tournament, losing to top-ranked Duke in the semifinals.
But this wasn’t what Prosser or his players envisioned.
“It’s very frustrating,” Williams said. “We knew what kind of team we could be, but we didn’t play like it. If you don’t have that chemistry early, it’s tough to get it.”