INDIANAPOLIS – All year, the Gophers have had something of a blueprint for these situations.
Close game, big possession, late in the shot clock: Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has found something he’s comfortable with, something that has been consistently successful. He runs a high ball screen for point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who then drives to the basket.
It was starting to get to guard Andre Hollins. He spoke up.
“I can run a high ball screen, too,” he told Pitino during a timeout Thursday, the Gophers clinging to a three-point lead over Penn State at 59-56 with 21 seconds to go.
Said Pitino: “He kind of got on me a little bit. I said all right, relax, just because DeAndre is so good at it. But you could see he’s so eager to make a play. … He was dying to hit that big shot.”
Then he did. With the clock ticking down, Joey King got Hollins the ball and the junior quickly launched it.
The three-pointer with 15 seconds left all but notched the must-win 63-56 victory over Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
The players on the bench leapt to their feet.
It was only a reminder of the guy they’ve grown to know. On the other end of the flashy grin, they say, is a bulldog.
“He wants it every time,” guard Austin Hollins said. “That’s the type of player he is. He wants to win so bad and he’s so competitive — that’s just his nature. He’s all smiles off the court, but when it’s time to step on the court, it’s all business.”
Hollins, who finished with nine points, three rebounds and two assists, played only 25 minutes because of foul trouble. He sat for the last few minutes of the first half after picking up his second, and then had to watch for a long stretch in the second half after getting whistled for his fourth with more than 15 minutes to play.
“When I got my fourth one, I was like wow,” he said. “I thought I got fouled on it and then they called a foul on me. It’s a hump you have to go over. … I think the refs just weren’t consistent … but those are just the new rules and I’ve got to adjust to it.”
Mathieu talked to his fellow guard throughout the game, he said, reminding him that when he returned, he would need to come up big.
Hollins was pegged the Gophers’ star player at the start of the season, but an ankle injury and a plethora of backcourt options relegated him to being simply one of many scorers. But Hollins has long found success in the postseason — averaging 26.5 points in the NCAA tournament last year, and first breaking out in the Big Ten tournament of his freshman season.
“Who else besides Dre?” Mathieu said. “When it left his hands, we all knew it was good and I was already on my way back on defense. … Foul trouble and all that, coming off the bench and making a shot like that, that’s huge.”