AUSTIN, TEXAS – All year, the Gophers have authored great peaks and deep valleys. They’ve made fans laugh, they’ve made them scream, they’ve made them cry.
Why would we think it would stop here? In a season full of ups and downs, the Gophers found a way to carve at least one more “up,” overwhelming UCLA in a plethora of ways and notching the program’s first on-court NCAA tournament victory in 16 years, 83-63 at the Frank Erwin Center on Friday night.
The Gophers (21-12), the No. 11 seed in the South Regional, will face third-seeded Florida (27-7) on Sunday in the round of 32. The Gators beat Northwestern State 79-47.
“The way we ended the season, we were disappointed, we were embarrassed,” said Gophers senior Trevor Mbakwe, who had nine points and 12 rebounds. “We want to go out and make the Sweet 16, and we have another tough challenge ahead of us.”
Mbakwe and Rodney Williams’ memorable but up-and-down collegiate careers were extended and coach Tubby Smith’s job security got a big boost after the Gophers entered the tournament with 11 losses in their previous 16 games.
But it was Andre Hollins, who finished with a game-high 28 points and went 5-for-8 from three-point range, who stole the show.
The sophomore point guard hit four of those three-pointers in the second half and picked up a vulnerable Gophers team twice to ice the victory.
“We knew that once he gets one or two down, then he’s going to be pretty tough to guard,” Mbakwe said.
Said Hollins: “My teammates believed in me. They knew I could hit the shot, and tonight I hit it.”
After an ugly start by both teams — five minutes went by before anyone had scored a basket — the Gophers picked up the intensity while the Bruins (25-10) failed to escape their shooting slump.
Sixth-seeded UCLA, which looked helpless against the Gophers’ zone and worn out by their defensive press, shot 8-for-30 from the floor in the first half, with star Shabazz Muhammad struggling to the tune of an 0-for-7 performance. The Bruins double-teamed Mbakwe from the start, but with each of their big men picking up at least two fouls by halftime — Travis Wear had three fouls not even 8½ minutes in — UCLA’s aggressiveness dropped dramatically.
When the Gophers starting hitting shots — Austin Hollins dropped three threes in the first half and Andre Hollins added one — they started rolling.
Muhammad woke up after halftime and the Bruins made a charge, coming within five with 15:08 to go on seven points from the freshman forward.
That’s when Andre Hollins took over. First, he went on a 10-3 run that was all his own. Then, after UCLA again came within single digits — with just over nine minutes to go — Hollins hit three consecutive free throws, giving the Gophers more life.
He might have given his Smith a little more life as well. The Gophers coach started out the promising 2012-13 season with a contract extension through the 2016-17 season from new athletic director Norwood Teague, and he was coaching arguably his most talented bunch in his six seasons here, after Mbakwe received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
But a 15-1 beginning — including a 3-0 start in the Big Ten that lifted the Gophers to a No. 8 ranking — quickly unraveled to that 5-11 finish, including a first-round bounce from the Big Ten tournament by Illinois.
An NCAA tournament victory — the first the Gophers have had since 1997, also over UCLA (since vacated) and the first official victory in the Big Dance since 1990 over Syracuse — helps Smith in terms of job security.
“I think we just had to get back to having fun,” said sophomore Joe Coleman, who had 14 points. “I think it showed tonight.”