Gophers Extend Season with Crazy Last-Second Win Over Butler in Opening Round of NIT Tourney

dawson garcia minnesota gophers butler bulldogs
Doug McSchooler/for IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team has had a rollercoaster 2023-24, in Ben Johnson’s 3rd year as head coach. And that didn’t change in what could have been their season finale, a first-round NIT Tournament matchup on the road vs the Butler Bulldogs.

But this time, their roller coaster came to a stop without the Gophers vomiting up a late lead or victory of any sort. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Minnesota fought from behind for much of the 2nd half, and it was the Gophers who made clutch, winning plays late, to seal a sphincter-tightening 73-72 victory at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Dawson Garcia, Elijah Hawkins lead Minnesota Gophers to NIT win

Let’s jump right to the game-winning play and clutch free throws that secured yet another memorable NIT win for the program. After a huge Dawson Garcia drive to the basket brought Minnesota within one point (with 22 seconds remaining) Ben Johnson made what seemed to be a curious decision NOT to foul the Bulldogs immediately upon them inbounding the ball.

A closer look reveals his reasoning. The Bulldogs were able to inbound the ball to their best free throw shooter, DJ Davis, who shot 95% (95/100) from the line this season. That refusal to foul Davis seemed to cause some confusion for Butler, and after dribbling into trouble, Davis tried to pass but didn’t see Parker Fox, who made a heads up play to jump the passing lane.

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Suddenly, trailing 71-72, the Gophers had one final possession of chaos that somehow led to Elijah Hawkins with the ball under the basket, where he was fouled in the act of shooting. Of course, the Howard transfer and U of M single-season assists leader, canned both free throws, to put Minnesota up by one-point; a lead they wouldn’t give back.

All of the upperclassman showed up for this 1st round NIT matchup and that’s why Minnesota pulled out the victory. It was Dawson Garcia who assumed the role of team battery on offense in Indianapolis tonight.

Anytime Minnesota needed a bucket to stymie a Butler run, they went to Garcia and he delivered repeatedly, finishing with a team high 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Hawkins and Pharrel Payne were the closest Gopher scorers behind Dawson. They scored 11 points apiece.

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Even more impressive overall, than Garcia, was Hawkins, who continues to blow me away with his skillset, competitiveness and feel for the moment every time I watch him play basketball. On Tuesday night, he was simply sensational, finishing with the aforementioned 11 points… to go with 15 assists, 6 rebounds (I know the roster says he is 5-11 but that’s on a stool) and 3 steals to go with only 4 turnovers.

Next up, the Gophers will play the winner of Indiana State (the No. 1 seed in their region and one of the teams viewed as a massive small school snub for the NCAA Tournament) and SMU, a game that will take place tomorrow night at 6:00 p.m. on ESPN+.

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