At first, Austin Hollins didn’t see it coming. But when his eyes connected on the lob from point guard DeAndre Mathieu, the athletic wing did what he’s gotten so good at doing in the past couple of games — he slammed it.
The vicious alley oop — Hollins’ third in the past two games — brought the Gophers to their biggest lead of the night with 14:46 to play in the second half, and got the meager crowd of 11,228 ringing, a moment of energy and intensity in a game that lacked both for much of it.
“If I’m ever open right there, I just told him to throw it there, I’ll go get it for him,” Hollins said. “Sometimes it’s going to be a little dead in there, and we have to bring our own energy.”
The Gophers did enough to slide past woeful New Orleans 80-65, withstanding a second-half run from the Privateers, but shorthanded and struggling to maintain focus, Minnesota took what wasn’t exactly the prettiest win of the year.
Center Elliott Eliason and guard Malik Smith sprained their left ankles in practices on Thursday and Friday. With Eliason hurting, Mo Walker started for the first time this season and responded to the move, scoring 11 points and adding eight rebounds — although the center missed most of the second half after picking up his fourth foul shortly after halftime.
Eliason played for four minutes and recorded a pair of blocks in that time, but left hobbling.
Smith, meanwhile, didn’t play at all after showing up to shootaround hardly able to walk, coach Richard Pitino said.
“We won by 15 at home without two major contributors,” Pitino said. “I’ll probably look back at this and say it was a better win than I thought it was.”
With 3:10 to go, the Privateers (1-4) had pulled within eight points of a Gophers team that had pushed the lead to 24 after Hollins’ dunk. But Minnesota (8-2) authored an 11-5 finishing run, and got double-digit scoring from six players.
Pitino made it clear from the start that he wanted to use the lopsided matchup as a teaching opportunity. He pulled Andre Hollins about 9 seconds into the game after the junior was caught off guard when a pass headed his way, and pulled a similarly quick switch with Joey King in for Oto Osenieks, seemingly less than pleased with the latter’s effort.
“His problem was I called a play, and he didn’t execute it and so I was upset,” Pitino said of Hollins. “But he came back and he was fine. He was pretty aggressive towards the end of the first half; he got going a little bit. We need him to do that. We need an aggressive Andre Hollins.”
Minnesota, which shot 52.2 percent from the floor in the first half, played sloppily in stretches, at one point coughing up six turnovers in a span of less than five minutes, but was able to easily overwhelm New Orleans in the paint, where the Gophers recorded 32 points, and had success from beyond the arc, where they connected on eight three-pointers. The Gophers finished with 16 turnovers; they made only six in their previous game against Florida State.
“We didn’t really play the whole game through,” Walker said. “We took our foot off the gas, and they made a big run in the second half and got the game pretty close. So we could lose on any given night if we don’t give it all for 40 minutes.”