Richard Pitino leads Minnesota to NIT title

NEW YORK -- Imagine being in just your second year in your chosen profession, and having the chance to compete against one of the very best to ever do the job.

That was Richard Pitino's opportunity on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. And, even better, he came out on top.

In just his second year as a head coach, Pitino guided his Minnesota Golden Gophers to the 2014 NIT championship, defeating Larry Brown's Southern Methodist Mustangs 65-63.

“Obviously extremely happy for our guys to win a championship,” Pitino said. “I’m really, really happy for them that they get to walk off [the] Madison Square Garden court as winners.”

It was a highly entertaining game, featuring two of the NIT’s four No. 1 seeds. There were 14 ties and 17 lead changes, and neither team led by more than seven.

We saw good performances from several players. Austin Hollins scored 19 for Minnesota, including a huge 3-pointer in the final minute. Nic Moore had 17 points and seven assists for SMU.

But the real stars were the coaches: Brown, the 73-year-old inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, and Pitino, the 31-year-old son of Rick Pitino, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame just seven months ago.

And the game came down to a coaching decision, in effect. With Minnesota leading 65-62 and 4.8 seconds left, SMU had the ball with a chance to tie. Pitino wouldn’t let that happen. He instructed his team to foul before an SMU player had a chance to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer.

Instead, the Mustangs' Nick Russell missed his first free throw (when he was trying to make it), and made his second (when he was trying to miss it), and Minnesota was able to run out the clock from there.

“Got to give a lot of credit to Richard and his team,” Brown said. “They were really well prepared. Got down seven and I thought he got their kids to dig in.”

Brown is the only coach ever to win both an NCAA championship and an NBA title. But it is Pitino, not Brown, who now has an NIT championship on his résumé.

It would have been a mere footnote in terms of Brown’s legacy. But it’s a significant step for Pitino, given this was his first year at Minnesota, following one year as head coach at Florida International.

Throw in the fact that his father and mother and several other family members were sitting right behind the Minnesota bench, and it’s a memory he will surely treasure.

And not just him.

“I almost feel like crying, I’m so elated with joy,” the elder Pitino said, amid the on-court celebration.

“It meant a lot -- not just my dad, but my whole family [being here],” Richard Pitino said. “This is hopefully just the beginning for me.”

After the Golden Gophers finished cutting down the net, the players and coaches did not immediately head back to the locker room. Instead, Pitino gathered everyone together for one final huddle.

Later, Pitino was asked why he did it, and what he said.

“I just thought for our seniors ... [there’s] something special about walking off the court a winner and ending your career that way,” he said. “[And] I told the guys coming back, I’m so fired up to get back to work.”

The truth is, he was already back to work, mere minutes after this season had ended.

Here’s guessing this won’t be the last net he cuts down.