With 3 minutes, 58 seconds left in regulation Wednesday at Purdue, Andre Hollins was itching to play the hero.
For nearly three full games, the Gophers junior guard had been relegated to the bench, able only to watch in back-to-back losses after severely spraining his left ankle Jan. 22.
Against the Boilermakers, he finally had an opportunity. To lead his team on the court instead of from the sideline. To take the big shots. To be the difference between extending the skid and turning things around.
“I always want to take the last shot,” Hollins said. “That’s just the type of person I am. I think I’ve worked hard for it.”
He worked hard for it again at Mackey Arena, getting open and putting up six jumpers — four of those three-pointers — from that 3:58 mark until the end of the game, three overtimes later. All six of those shots clanked off the rim.
Hollins was 3-for-14 from the floor, including 2-for-8 from three-point range, and scored eight points as the Gophers lost 77-74, their third loss in a row.
Rusty from a couple of weeks off, Hollins wasn’t ready to be the team’s redemption. The hope among the Gophers is that he will be a step closer to playing that role Saturday when Minnesota plays host to Indiana in a matchup of teams trying to reach .500 in conference play.
“We need a healthy Andre Hollins,” coach Richard Pitino said. “Towards the end of the game, we didn’t run a lot for him because I could tell he was starting to hobble a little bit. I didn’t think he took a lot of bad shots. He was probably settling for some jumpers just because as he got tired, that ankle hurt, and it probably didn’t feel good to go by guys as much. ... I thought he played well. He missed some shots, but I thought he played hard.”
It was a surprise that Hollins, the Gophers’ leading scorer at 15.1 points per game, played Wednesday, as Pitino had previously told media Hollins had only practiced sparingly and called a comeback before the Indiana game “very doubtful.” But after a good practice Friday and a smooth shootaround before the Wednesday’s game, Pitino said the team doctors gave the go-ahead for Hollins to participate.
Pitino did not ease Hollins back in the slightest, either. The Tennessee native started and played 36 minutes in the back-and-forth contest in West Lafayette, Ind., with backup Malik Smith getting in for only 17 minutes and failing to score. It was clear that Hollins was still not 100 percent — unable to cut aggressively on defense and becoming a bit fatigued in overtime. Pitino played offense-defense with him and Daquein McNeil in the final two overtimes to offset the disadvantage.
On Thursday, Pitino practiced Hollins only 20 minutes to allow the guard — who admitted to some soreness — some rest after his first game back.
“Coming back off an injury is hard, always, just getting that confidence,” said Hollins, who injured the ankle landing on Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser in the opening seconds of an 81-68 Gophers victory over the Badgers. “I’m not 100 percent, but I’m getting there. I’ll be there soon. I’ve just got to keep getting better and we’ve got to stay positive.”
The Gophers know that expecting Hollins to return to his old form immediately is unrealistic. That the Gophers are getting him back this quickly is better than expected, but regaining trust in an ankle — especially one that had never been sprained previously — takes time.
“It means a lot,” guard Austin Hollins said. “He can score for us. He’s a real scorer. I think it’s just going to take another game for him to get into the groove of things.”
Wednesday appeared to be a great time for the emotional boost that Andre Hollins seemed sure to provide — always the smiling and positive presence in the backcourt. Without him playing at his peak, the plan didn’t work, and now the Gophers are in need of a spark more than ever when they return to Williams Arena.
“It picks up a lot of people’s morale just to know that he’s back and he’s contributing more and more, slowly,” center Mo Walker said. “He was our main scorer before he went out, so just to have that piece back in the puzzle is a big deal.”