Austin Hollins stared straight ahead, stone-faced.
It was minutes after leaving the court following a victory over Iowa, a game that shoved the Gophers back into the NCAA tournament picture, and one that Hollins took over with a vengeance.
Coach Richard Pitino pointed at the Williams Arena locker-room wall, at a picture of a miner chipping away at a boulder five times his size.
“We talk about pounding that rock, pounding that rock,” Pitino said, pointing at Hollins. “And nobody does it more than him.”
After shooting 13-for-56 (23 percent) from three-point range in Big Ten play and scoring no more than 10 points in the previous five games, Hollins had just completed a momentous 27-point, four-rebound, four-assist performance against the Hawkeyes on Feb. 25. Pitino told his senior, in front of all his teammates, just how happy he was for him, and how much he deserved success.
Yet Hollins’ face didn’t move. It wasn’t that he didn’t care or appreciate his coach’s kind words. It’s just that Hollins takes the successes, like the struggles, in stride.
“He’s one of the least emotional [players he’s had],” Pitino said. “He’s pretty even-keeled.”
With Senior Day being observed at Sunday’s regular-season finale against Penn State, Hollins has been that steady presence — even if not always offensively — for nearly four years now, throughout the program’s ups and downs, wins and losses.
He has worked as hard or harder than anyone, both Pitino and former coach Tubby Smith have repeatedly pointed out, always bringing the same intensity, always the same attitude whether he is going through a massive slump or being publicly lauded.
At times, Pitino said, many of his players, including junior guard Andre Hollins, will have “off” practices, where they seem tired or less focused.
Not Austin Hollins.
“[Austin] is always right there,” Pitino said. “With the effort, with the intensity. Doesn’t mean he’s making all the shots like he did the other day, but his effort and his attitude is as consistent with a player as I’ve ever seen.”
Hollins and Hollins
For three years, the Gophers backcourt has been been identified by the Hollinses: two guards with the same last name, both from Memphis.
Understandably, there has been plenty of confusion — with broadcasters, writers and fans assuming some familial connection (there is none).
But over the years, the pair has stopped worrying about it..
“Sometimes we’re just like ‘Yeah, we’re brothers,’ ” said Austin, who is averaging 11.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists. “We might as well be. That’s the type of relationship we have, he’s like my brother. From the time he got here until now, our relationship has really grown.”
Those familiar with the team know the story. In high school, the two — who both wore No. 20 at the time — played ball in the same region, and both sets of parents started to notice another line in the newspaper’s box scores.
Who was this other No 20 A. Hollins, they each wondered.
Beyond a single meeting, and occasionally playing against each other, not much else came from the coincidence. After Austin committed to Minnesota, the communication lines reopened, with the pair starting to talk more and more after Andre whittled down his initial list.
Ultimately, Austin played a big role in Andre’s decision to join him.
“I think it was more of a comfort level of us coming from the same place and seeing how comfortable he was and the opportunities that he had,” Andre said. “He really swayed my decision.”
On the court, that close dynamic has played out in a special chemistry that has probably augmented both of their games. Austin said Andre knows where he will be on the floor, and he has become extremely familiar with the junior’s tendencies.
And when the team has gone through struggles — late collapses in the Big Ten every year, missing the NCAA tournament in 2011-12 and watching Smith get fired last year despite the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 1997 — they have found each other there to rely on.
“We’ve been through the storm,” Andre said. “We had our ups and downs throughout our three years.”
With 6:23 left in the first half against Iowa and the Gophers trailing by eight, Austin Hollins came alive.
Suddenly, after working so hard for so long to find his shot, everything seemed easy.
Hollins scored 13 points and grabbed a steal in those final minutes, helping to put the Gophers on top of Iowa by four at halftime and ultimately topple the Hawkeyes 95-89.
A game later, at Michigan on March 1, the Gophers walked away with a loss to the Big Ten champions, but Hollins led the team with 16 points.
It was a surge his teammates expected, given his approach throughout his slump, never panicking, never getting upset — even though it was obvious from his competitive nature that it bothered him.
“Austin is calm all the time,” point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “After practices, the times he was struggling, he stayed later than everybody else, getting extra shots up and getting better and that’s just the player he is.”
That natural demeanor probably helped, Pitino said.
“If he was emotional he would have lost his mind in those couple of games,” the coach said.
Next year, the look of the team changes. For four years, Austin Hollins has played major minutes, been the primary defensive stopper and — as the son of former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins — one of the headiest, most mature players on the floor as well. Hollins’ departure is part of the reason Pitino signed junior college wing Carlos Morris in the fall — to gain a player with some next-level experience who could start to fill his senior’s big shoes.
But for now, the Gophers are hoping Hollins’ recent spark will help carry them to a victory in a must-win game over Penn State on Sunday, and a run in the Big Ten tournament and beyond.
Hollins, meanwhile, just wants to soak in these final days, especially with the future unknown. His pick up in play isn’t necessarily due to that impending finale, he said.
“But there is that sense of urgency,” he added, “being that it’s the end of the season — this is my senior season and I know it is coming to an end soon.”