National Invitation Tournament—2002

By Stew Thornley

In a sense, the Minnesota Gophers entry into and exit from the 2002 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) came with a 67-66 loss on their home court at Williams Arena. Each time, senior guard Kerwin Fleming was the focal point in a key play.

The Gophers’ loss to Illinois in their final regular-season game, on March 3, squelched a chance at what would have been a likely berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship tournament. This game featured a meltdown by the Gophers, who had a nine-point lead with just over three minutes to play. With about 20 seconds to go and Minnesota by this time holding a 66-62 lead, Fleming was trapped bringing the ball upcourt. He lost possession, and Corey Bradford buried a three-pointer to pull the Illini to within one. Following another Minnesota turnover a few seconds later, Frank Williams’s driving layup gave Illinois a 67-66 victory.

A 67-66 loss to the Richmond Spiders on March 18, in the second round of the NIT, finished the season off for good. This time, the Gophers were the comeback team, battling from a nine-point deficit with just under four minutes to play. And Fleming again was the subject of controversy when he drove for a layup rather than pulling up for a three-point attempt that could have tied the game in the closing seconds.

After the game, Monson asked his guard if he was aware that the Gophers were down by three. Fleming replied that he wanted to close the gap and then quickly foul a Richmond player. Others grumbled that Fleming was trying too hard to be the hero, just as he had when he tried to take the ball upcourt against Illinois. Regardless, it was an ignominious way for Fleming to end his basketball days at Minnesota. Another collegiate career came to an end on the same play as Dusty Rychart rebounded Fleming’s miss and put it back with barely a second left on the clock. Richmond inbounded and threw a long pass down court as the buzzer sounded.

In between the 67-66 debacles, the Gophers had a pair of games in the Big Ten Tournament, winning one and losing one, and a much better performance in the opening round of the NIT as they beat the New Mexico Lobos, 96-62, at Williams Arena.

While the Gophers ended up cruising to a 34-point win, they had their hands full in the early going. After falling behind, 11-4, New Mexico used three-point baskets to close the gap, take the lead, and then extend it. Ruben Douglas’s three-pointer made the score 11-7. Two minutes later, he hit on another to give the Lobos a 15-13 lead, their first of the game. After Sinque Carey of New Mexico and Jerry Holman of Minnesota exchanged field goals, Douglas delivered another three-point basket to increase the Lobos’ lead to 20-15. With just over eleven-and-a-half minutes left in the half, New Mexico opened its biggest lead of the game, making the score 24-18 on a three-pointer by Tim Lightfoot.

Monson switched defenses in trying to stop the Lobos’ long-range attack, moving from a zone to man-to-man and finally settling on a triangle-and-two. Monson said they worked on the triangle in practice in anticipation of New Mexico, even though the Gophers hadn’t used such a defense all season. He added that they considered a box-and-one, but decided instead to go with the triangle, leaving two defenders free to shadow the New Mexico sharpshooters on the perimeter. New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla cited the defensive adjustment as the turning point of the game, saying the Lobos “didn’t have a lot of answers” to the triangle-and-two defense.

Minnesota rallied from the 24-18 deficit by scoring eight straight points. The teams stayed within striking distance of one another and were tied with a little more than three minutes to play in the half. Rick Rickert then hit a three-point basket to make the score 38-35, putting the Gophers in front to stay.

Minnesota held a 47-40 lead at halftime and steadily increased its lead in the second half. Holman got hot, pulling them down and putting them up. The junior-college transfer had a pair of putbacks, followed by another dunk to make the score 56-47. A few minutes later, Holman scored six straight points to up the lead to 71-55. By this time, Travarus Bennett had joined the fray. The senior swingman made shots from the line and the field, including one from three-point range. He also pulled down 11 rebounds in the second half, finishing with a game-high 23 points and 15 rebounds. Holman had 22 points and seven rebounds in the game.

After the game, Monson spoke of Bennett’s leadership. “It was obvious he wanted the season to continue.” Fraschilla, in contrast, seemed relieved in his post-game press conference to have the season over. “We were shorthanded, and we ran out of gas. It’s been a difficult year.” Fraschilla seemed remarkably upbeat for a coach who just watched his team get blown out by 34 points. Even an incident a few minutes later, with Fraschilla opening a can of Coca-Cola that had been dropped on the floor by his sports information director, couldn’t shake his good mood. Fraschilla spoke with optimism of the next season, noting that the Lobos would have four starters returning.

If he knew then that he wouldn’t be around for the next season, he didn’t let on. However, three nights later, Fraschilla resigned as New Mexico coach. Fraschilla had taken the Lobos to the NIT in each of his three seasons in New Mexico, but expectations for the program are higher than that in Albuquerque, particularly with a team that had made the NCAA Tournament each of the four previous years. While the Lobos were 55-41 overall under Fraschilla, the team’s record in the Mountain West Conference was only 21-21 during that time. Fraschilla was also under fire over his relations with players. Nine players left the program during Fraschilla’s tenure, including point guard Marlon Parmer, who cited verbal abuse and intimidation by Fraschilla when he quit the team after a 30-point loss to Utah earlier this season. Fraschilla had left his previous coaching job, at St. John’s University from 1996 to 1998, after a dispute with the school’s administration.

Meanwhile, the Gophers prepared for the second round of the NIT. They were at home against the Richmond Spiders on Monday, March 18, a win away from a meeting with the winner of the Syracuse-Butler game, being played at the same time, for a berth in the NIT Final Four in New York. A Syracuse win against Butler would assure the Gophers the home court again in the third round, as the Carrier Dome in Syracuse was being used for the NCAA East Regional. Good news on that front came when it was announced midway through the second half at Williams Arena that Syracuse had prevailed in overtime. Now it was up to the Gophers to do their part, but by this time they were in a real battle with the Spiders.

Minnesota started the game with a 5-0 lead on a field goal and three-point basket by Travarus Bennett. Richmond tied it as sophomore forward Mike Skrocki hit a three-pointer and then a pair of free throws, but Minnesota regained momentum and built a lead.

Jerry Holman, coming off the bench as Monson started a three-guard lineup for the second game in a row, pulled down eight rebounds in the first 10 minutes of the game. He didn’t grab another missed shot the rest of the way. Despite not starting, Holman played 17 minutes in the first half (when he also scored both his baskets) but only five minutes in the second half. “It was a tough game to evaluate who should be in,” Monson explained. “It’s a lot about matchups when you play teams you haven’t played before. This was a tough matchup for us.”

With Holman leading the way, Minnesota established control of the boards from the outset and got off to a 17-7 lead in the first seven minutes (with a 6-2 edge in rebounding). Richmond coach John Beilein wasn’t concerned about the rebounding dominance of the Gophers. “We are normally outrebounded,” Beilein said of his team, whose leading rebounders are a pair of guards, Tony Dobbins and Scott Ungerer. “Our goal is to not turn the ball over.”

After the Gophers built their early lead, Richmond took over the tempo of the game. The Spiders’ defense—a trap with a 1-3-1 zone—helped them to control the pace until the final minutes of the game as well as take Minnesota out of its offense. “They collapsed on us when we got the ball inside,” Monson said. “We weren’t able to finish it off.”

As for offense, Richmond was led by Skrocki, who connected on three-of-four three-point attempts in the first half and converted three-of-four free-throws down the stretch in the second half. He did more scoring in between and finished the night with five three-pointers and 28 points. “Without the three-point shot, we have no chance,” said Beilein. “It’s not just because we were making most of them. It also allows us to extend the floor a bit. You can guard a guy in the post with two people. But you can’t guard a guy in the perimeter with two people.”

The game was tied, 29-29, at the half, and the Gophers opened up a five-point lead three minutes into the second half. Once again, Skrocki was the man to bring the Spiders back. A field goal, defensive rebound, and three-point basket tied the score with just under 15 minutes to play. The Gophers never held the lead again.

Richmond built its largest lead, at 46-55, with four minutes left in the game. The teams exchanged baskets down the stretch as the Gophers whittled away at the gap, causing Richmond’s two centers—Johnathan Collins and Tim Faulconer—to foul out in the process.

Collins left after fouling Rickert with 2:07 to go, with Rickert making one of two free throws to make the score 57-53 in favor of Richmond. A three-point play by Tony Dobbins put Richmond up by seven, but the Gophers had a chance for a three-point play of their own a few seconds later when Rickert scored and was fouled by Faulconer, causing Faulconer to leave the game. However, Rickert missed the free-throw attempt, which was rebounded by Ungerer, the last of his team-high six rebounds. Downcourt, Ungerer turned the ball over, and the Gophers came back, Rychart grabbing an offensive rebound and laying it in to cut the lead to three.

At this point, the Gophers began sending Richmond to the line, a strategy that didn’t pay off as Skrocki, Jeff Myers, and Reggie Brown each connected on a pair of free throws, making the score 66-61 with 16 seconds left.

Rychart’s three-pointer made it a two-point game, and Kevin Burleson immediately fouled Skrocki in the backcourt. With eight seconds on the clock, Skrocki missed his first throw, leaving the Gophers with a chance to tie. He made his second attempt, putting the score at 67-64. Fleming raced down court with the ball, but didn’t stop for a three-point attempt that could have tied the game. Richmond cleared a path in the lane for Fleming, who still missed his lay-up, leaving the rebound for Rychart to clean up and leaving the Gophers a point short.

Richmond, not Minnesota, would host Syracuse in the third round (a game Syracuse won easily), and Beilein seemed almost in awe of their upcoming opponent in general and of their coach, Jim Boeheim, in particular. Beilein called Boeheim “a legend” and said it would be an honor to have him visit the Richmond arena.

Richmond and Minnesota never played before. Richmond played at home against the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1953, but this was the Spiders’ first trip ever to Minnesota. The only other Big Ten team Richmond has played is Indiana. The Hoosiers and Spiders have met three times, all in the post-season, including a shocker in 1988 when Richmond defeated the defending national champions in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

An even-bigger shocker came in 1991, when Richmond—with Dick Tarrant as coach—became the first No. 15 seed to defeat a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The vanquished team? Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangemen.

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