There was a time not long ago that Andre Hollins being hurt at the start of a huge game against a ranked team would have spelled doom for the Gophers.
Instead, Minnesota rallied behind backup center Mo Walker early and guards Austin Hollins, Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu throughout the game to claim a huge victory over No. 9 Wisconsin — the Badgers’ third consecutive loss — 81-68 on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.
“It was unbelievable all the guys that stepped up,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “That’s when you kind of figure out if you can be a good team or not, when you take one thing away, you go at them with this one.”
The Gophers (15-5, 4-3 Big Ten) finished a hellacious stretch of four top-15 teams with a 2-2 record, setting them up nicely for the road ahead.
As as they have all season, they raised their record over .500 in the Big Ten by uncommon means.
On the Gophers’ first possession, Andre Hollins hit a midrange jumper to put Minnesota on the board first. But the junior guard came down on defender Josh Gasser’s foot, turning his left ankle and grimacing as he clutched his leg before being helped off the court 12 seconds into the game.
The Gophers took no time in picking up where their leader left off.
Walker came in for Elliott Eliason just under five minutes into the first half, and took over with a force. The transformed 6-10 center — now down to 250 pounds, 60 pounds slimmer than last season — exploded for 12 consecutive points, taking advantage of Wisconsin’s weakened interior defense (with 7-footer Frank Kaminsky on the bench with a pair of fouls) to push Minnesota to a 21-13 lead.
Walker finished with 18 points (14 in the first half) and nine rebounds — both new career highs.
“It felt good,” Walker said. “I got pretty into the game, I let my emotions show a little bit, got the crowd into it, got my teammates into it and we made a little bit of a run.”
That momentum led Minnesota — which shot 58.9 percent from the field and had only seven turnovers — to a 34-28 lead at the break, despite point guard Mathieu sitting with a pair of fouls for the final 5:38 of the first half.
Meanwhile, Hollins was downstairs on a training table, shouting loudly and the TV and cheering on his team.
“They didn’t need me tonight,” he said. “They played amazing, they played great team basketball.”
Wisconsin was within seven at 66-59 with 4:39 remaining when the Badgers (16-3, 3-3) adjusted to the Gophers’ surprising inside play, but unlike in games against Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State, Minnesota didn’t allow the Badgers back in the game.
Rather, the Gophers threw a plethora of guards at the Wisconsin defense, which was shredded like a leaf in a hailstorm.
Mathieu (18 points, five rebounds, three assists) and Austin Hollins came alive down the stretch, the former sneaking past the Badgers’ defenders for shot after shot at the rim and the latter exercising his athleticism, igniting the packed Barn crowd announced at 14,625 with a pair of slams.
After that 4:39 mark, Smith (14 points, three rebounds, three assists) stretched the lead with a layup and then was followed by a pair of scores at the rim from Joey King and Mathieu and four free throws from Walker. Smith’s shot clock-beating three-pointer with 42 seconds left put the Gophers up 79-65 and sealed the upset.
“Andre goes down the first play of the game and we could have backed down,” Austin Hollins said. “But instead we rallied around him. The guys came in off the bench and really did their role.”