Only one minute into Wednesday night’s game, Gophers guard Andre Hollins found himself watching Minnesota-Wisconsin from the training room.
The junior severely sprained his left ankle landing on a defender’s foot when he came down from the Gophers’ first shot attempt 12 seconds into what became an 81-68 victory over their border rivals.
The next morning, X-rays showed no break. A magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed a severe sprain, likely to keep Hollins out through at least the Gophers’ next game, at Nebraska on Sunday.
But while the potential absence of their leading scorer is certainly a hit, the Gophers proved in beating the No. 9 Badgers that they no longer have to rely on him in the same incapacitating way as they have in the past.
In fact, without him, the Gophers still managed to play their most efficient and best all-around game of the season, getting major contributions from Mo Walker, DeAndre Mathieu, Austin Hollins and Malik Smith, and scoring an incredible 1.40 points per possession.
“When things are clicking, it’s tough to overcome,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I think these guys truly believe that the whole is greater than the parts.”
That concept was on full display on Wednesday, revealing just how much more balanced this team is than a year ago, when the Gophers typically crumbled whenever Hollins wasn’t playing the hero. Of the nine Big Ten Conference games last year in which the Memphis native scored 13 points or fewer, the Gophers went only 2-7 — and the two victories were over Northwestern and Penn State, the worst two teams in the conference.
Now, the Gophers seem capable of withstanding such adversity, and if the Wisconsin game was any indication, perhaps they are ready to take the next step that could ultimately lead them to an NCAA tournament bid many believed unlikely when the season began.
They had led by at least eight points at some point in each one of their previous Big Ten games this season, yet they managed only a 3-3 record. Even in beating Purdue and Ohio State, they allowed their opponent back in the game from sizable deficits, forcing the Gophers to gut it out in the final seconds. The Gophers beat then-No. 11 Ohio State by 10 last week, but the Buckeyes were within three with 5:44 to go.
On Wednesday, even short a major playmaker, the Gophers held firm to their advantage. With 4:39 remaining, the Badgers pulled within seven, the time to make the momentum flip if it ever would.
The Gophers responded, getting consecutive layups from Smith and Joey King to push their lead back to 11.
“It was a big emphasis,” center Elliott Eliason said, remembering well the Gophers’ 10-point lead that slipped away in their previous game against Iowa, which eventually won by 21. “We can’t take our foot off the gas at all when we have a lead. … Iowa, it was a bitter pill, but probably one we had to take. We were pretty high on ourselves after the Ohio State game and we got our butts kicked on the road by Iowa. Hopefully we can stay humble over this next stretch.”
The Gophers now have two conference victories over ranked teams, and NCAA tournament prognosticators have them safely in the field of 68. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected them as a No. 9 seed in his updated bracket Thursday.
And on Sunday, when in all probability Andre Hollins hobbles to the bench before the opening tip against the Cornhuskers, he will have the luxury of cheering on a team that has developed to function competently without him.
“Of course I wanted to be out there with my teammates, but at the same time, I trust them, I believe in them, I go to battle with them every day,” he said. “So I wasn’t worried when I went out.”
The Gophers are not solely the Andre Hollins Team anymore. And they are only now beginning to realize how meaningful that is.