Andre Hollins couldn’t hold it in anymore.
The verve and good vibes were spilling over, the game looked suddenly fun to this bunch of Gophers, and Hollins seemed more sure than anyone that they were on their way to a victory.
So with more than three minutes remaining in overtime Thursday against Wisconsin and the Gophers up by three, Hollins followed his momentous tie-breaking trey by putting his fingers to his lips and blowing a kiss to the Barn’s raucous fans, who were almost as ecstatic as the team to be on the verge of something positive.
“It was a Valentine's kiss to the fans,” a grinning Hollins said after the extra session played out just as the guard had hoped in a 58-53 Gophers victory.
He was just one smiling face in a locker room that had seemed, in recent weeks, like a bottle full of steam with no outlet. Thursday the room was full of players dancing and jumping and Trevor Mbakwe spontaneously picking up head coach Tubby Smith, throwing him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and then continuing his jumping.
Maybe all of this was the plan. Maybe a little fun – on the court and off – was just what the doctor ordered.
Smith knew that one of the biggest precursors to the Gophers finding success again, after losing six of their last eight games, was getting their mojo back.
The team needed a splash of confidence, the feeling of control over their fate, some optimism in their ability to turn things around.
More than anything, they needed a win, but to get it, they might need to relax first, Smith reasoned.
He took point guard Andre Hollins – who has been the heart and soul of this team when they’ve played well – out to lunch Wednesday and had a heart-to-heart.
“Coach said just play ball,” Hollins said after the game, describing the lunch. “We’re going to play loose, we’re going to come out and play basketball. Don’t worry about making turnovers. He didn’t care if we had 50 turnovers, as long as we win. He wanted us to play basketball.”
The Gophers did on Thursday. While not always pretty or perfect, they never gave up, coming back from six down with five minutes to go to force overtime, where Hollins himself took over, guiding Minnesota to a much-needed win.
Minnesota still has plenty to work on – the Gophers couldn’t manage to force the tempo against draw-it-out Wisconsin, they still struggled to effectively pound the ball inside, and shot just 36.7 percent overall.
But the edge and the energy that Minnesota has lacked in recent losses was there. The Gophers played tough, stingy defense, particularly in the final six minutes of regulation and all over overtime, when they allowed a total of one Wisconsin basket (in the final 10 seconds of OT). They kept upbeat despite a late deficit and ad-libbed when plays fell apart (see Joe Coleman’s drive to the basket after Minnesota’s screens failed to get anyone open, which resulted in the game-tying free throws with less than 20 seconds left in regulation). They closed hard, they flipped the momentum and by the time overtime had started, these players knew they had this one in the bag. You could see they felt it. Hollins couldn’t help himself – he had to blow his kiss to the crowd.
That’s what Smith had wanted when he scheduled the lunch with Hollins – to simplify things, to give the players a little more leash, to make the game of basketball the game of basketball again, and not some insurmountable feat against the world.
“We wanted to simplify things,” Smith said. “Dre has been running a lot of different stuff, calling a lot of different plays. I said let’s just narrow it down.”
The mission was accomplished in the looseness that showed at the end, when they needed it. Their last two timeouts resulted in plays that didn’t work – and still the Gophers pushed through.
It’s a good start to their goal of a turnaround, which continues Sunday at Iowa, and allowed for a major release for the trapped steam.