AUSTIN, TEXAS – Joe Coleman says he usually can discern in warmups if Andre Hollins will have a strong performance that night.
“You can just tell when he’s locked in,” Coleman said.
In other words, he can sense whether Hollins is ready to establish an aggressive mindset for the Gophers basketball team. He can tell if the sophomore point guard is primed to push the pace, attack the basket and rise up and shoot his jump shot with confidence.
Apparently, it has something to do with Hollins’ body language. And facial expressions.
“When he’s smiling,” senior Trevor Mbakwe said. “The more he’s smiling and happy, that’s when you can tell that he’s engaged. When he’s smiling, having a good time, not second-guessing anything … That’s what we need for him to be our floor general.”
Safe to say, Hollins showed that zeal Friday night.
The sophomore point guard put the Gophers on his back at a critical juncture against No. 6 seed UCLA in their opening game of the NCAA tournament at the Frank Erwin Center. Hollins came alive with an offensive explosion to lead the Gophers to an 83-63 victory and a date with Florida on Sunday for a trip to the Sweet 16.
Hollins scored 23 of his game-high 28 points in the second half and tied Willie Burton’s school tournament record with five three-pointers. He added nine rebounds, five assists, only one turnover and made all seven of his free-throw attempts.
“Growing up as a little kid, you dream of these moments,” Hollins said.
Hollins made four three-pointers in the second half, including two back-to-back after UCLA cut the deficit to 44-39 with 15:08 to play. He drained a pair of threes in a span of 32 seconds to shift momentum back to the Gophers for good.
He was just getting started. He scored on a driving layup and another deep three. He set up Joe Coleman for layups with two assists. Hollins had complete control over the second half.
His scoring outburst underscored what we’ve known about this Gophers team all season: If Mbakwe is their best player, Hollins is their most important. He’s their X factor, a guy who can carry the team with his outside shooting and ability to score in bunches. Or, as we’ve also witnessed, he can bog down the offense with turnovers and a lack of aggressiveness in his decision-making.
Hollins leads the team in scoring, assists, three-point shooting and minutes played. When he’s in attack mode and making perimeter shots, the Gophers become a difficult team to defend. But when he struggles, the offense often looks discombobulated.
“Andre has been the most consistent scorer we’ve had all year long but you can’t do it alone,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We need other people.”
Hollins shoulders the heaviest responsibility as the team’s primary ballhandler and leading scorer. The Gophers rely on him to run the offense and also look for his shot. That’s not always an easy task and Hollins looked conflicted in his role at different times this season.
That’s because he’s not a natural point guard. He’s more comfortable at shooting guard, but he’s forced to play the point out of necessity. Smith has tried to relieve some of the pressure and also maximize Hollins’ scoring by moving him to off guard for spurts.
Hollins seemed attentive and loose on the eve of the tournament, his first taste of March Madness. However brilliantly he played in the NIT last season, that pales in comparison to the scope and pressure of this tournament.
Like many kids, Hollins spent every March glued to the television, hoping that he would get to play on this big stage some day. His two favorite tournament memories are of Juan Dixon leading Maryland to the national title in 2002 and Kemba Walker doing the same for Connecticut in 2011. Hollins loved the way those two played with determination and purpose and no fear.
“I think March is about players who want it the most,” he said. “The world is watching.”
Hollins played in three state championship games in high school and emerged as the Gophers leader in the NIT as a freshman. And he came up big with some clutch shooting in the second half Friday.
“It’s just exciting, that intense moment,” he said. “I play well in that type of environment.”