Austin Hollins took the microphone at midcourt, his face still glistening with sweat, and took a moment to smile.
After long-endured struggles during the Big Ten schedule this season, it was hard to imagine a finer finish. The senior guard took off offensively in the past three games and helped boost the Gophers to a strong regular-season finale victory over Penn State 81-63 on Sunday.
With the momentum of two victories in three games at their backs — ones marked by notable improvement — the Gophers head to the Big Ten tournament percolating with confidence.
“This may be our last game in the Barn,” Hollins said to the jubilant Williams Arena crowd of 12,775. “But we don’t want to stop here. We’ve got big goals for the future.”
The victory made postseason dreams a little more possible, giving the Gophers a golden opportunity at the Big Ten tournament, which opens Thursday in Indianapolis with Minnesota (19-12, 8-10 Big Ten) getting a rematch with Penn State (15-16, 6-12).
“We know it’s going to be a tough tournament, but it’s anybody’s tournament because our league is so so tough,” Gophers point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “So it’s good to get the offense going and not go in on a sluggish note.”
In the past three games, the Gophers offense has been ticking along nicely. After a week off, the Gophers picked up where they left off, compiling their fourth 80-point game of the Big Ten schedule with five players scoring in double figures.
Fittingly, Hollins took the lead. After being honored before the regular-season finale — along with fellow seniors Maverick Ahanmisi, Malik Smith and Oto Osenieks — he continued the offensive surge that has marked his past three games, compiling the most points during that time (57) as any three-game stretch in his career.
“It felt good,” said Hollins, who called his last game at the Barn “bittersweet.”
“I think just being persistent and not giving up when things weren’t going well was really what helped me. You’ve just got to keep working hard and eventually it will pay off, you just don’t know when.”
Less than two minutes in, the Hollins-led rout had begun.
Hollins, who finished with 14 points and three steals, hit a two-point jump shot to ignite a 20-3 start over the Nittany Lions. The Gophers turned the ball over only five times (12 overall) and shot nearly 60 percent in the first half to hold a 14-point lead (38-24) at the break.
Penn State steadily chipped away at the mountainous deficit in the second half, going on a 17-1 run on the back of D.J. Newbill (a game-high 24 points) to come within nine with 8:37 to go, but the Gophers were able to dam the flood.
Center Mo Walker ensured Hollins’ early dominance would stay relevant, controlling the paint and dipping and dodging his way to 16 points, nine of them in the second half. Mathieu (16 points, six assists) continued his team’s night-long charge, getting to the rim for easy scores. Andre Hollins (13 points) converted six of six shots from the free-throw line. And Ahanmisi put a lid on the scoring party after making three of six three-pointers, tying a career high with 13 points.
“They made a nice run — I thought we calmed ourselves own a little bit and handled it,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “So hopefully we’ve grown as a team.”
Given the strength of the victory, the Gophers probably feel fortunate to face Penn State again this week. One more win in Indianapolis would potentially ease the Gophers back on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble. By beating the Nittany Lions again, they would play second-seeded Wisconsin in the second round.
“It’s tough to beat a team three times in a row,” Walker said. “They’re going to scout us a little better, so we’ve just got to take this week and get even better offensively and defensively and prepare for the changes they might make.”