From ugly to exhilarating, Gophers get the win over Northwestern

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2013 - 7:06 AM

After the U's 17-point first half, its athleticism and Austin Hollins' hot streak woke up the crowd.

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The end of Sunday night's game likely came none too soon for Austin Hollins -- after all, if coach Tubby Smith's words are to be believed, the junior's jersey was probably saturated long before the final buzzer sounded in the Gophers' 69-51 victory over Northwestern.

He certainly worked hard enough, helping author an impressive Gophers turnaround from an ugly start and a diversion from their preferred style of play. Hollins hit five consecutive three-pointers over a span of less than 3 1/2 minutes, earning a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 12,750 at Williams Arena. He effectively forced the grinding pace to flip in the Gophers' favor, igniting a 22-5 run in the process.

All as his gold jersey turned a darker shade of bronze.

"When we come to practice, he usually has to change his shirt two or three times in practice," Smith said. "He's just that hard a worker -- either that or he sweats a lot."

It took some time for the No. 9 Gophers (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) to wake up, but when they did, they showcased once more just how tough they can be when they are clicking.

In that, Hollins was critical.

After a more-than-sluggish first half that ended with the Gophers ahead only 17-14, the home team was clinging to a two-point lead early in the second half.

But that's when the Gophers finally broke free of the mold Northwestern (9-5, 0-2) had forced upon them. First, they created some separation with three trips to the line interrupted only by a vicious Trevor Mbakwe block and dunk on the other end. With the Gophers controlling the pace, Hollins got hot, exploding with his impressive three-point barrage to complete the run that put the game out of reach. By the time he was done, he had stretched a nine-point lead to 20.

"I was just feeling it, so I wanted to put it up there," said a grinning Hollins, who finished with 19 points. "We didn't get a lot of shots up in the first half and the ones we did get up, we weren't making them. So it was important for us to come out strong and shoot the ball because that's what we do."

The Gophers -- who haven't started Big Ten play 2-0 since the 2009-10 season -- got out to a poor start, making only 33.3 percent of their shots from the field and struggling to get into their offense against Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone.

The Wildcats weren't any prettier, shooting 27.8 percent, but they controlled the game early by using long, drawn-out possessions to dictate the tempo and wear down the Gophers on defense.

Rodney Williams was the team's main spark in the first half, but even the senior forward notching his 1,000th career point on a layup 8:31 in didn't get the Gophers motivated to turn the game around.

"That's tough," Mbakwe said. "You play good defense for 30 seconds, you give up the offensive rebound and you have to play defense for another 30 seconds and they kind of take the air out of the ball."

In desperate need of a change and with starting point guard Andre Hollins having picked up a third foul, Smith called upon backup Maverick Ahanmisi to help push the ball, and with the team getting out better in transition, Austin Hollins started getting opportunities.

"When he's making shots like that, we're a different team," Smith said. "If he can continue to make shots like that, even when Andre Hollins wasn't in the game, that was huge, that was huge for us."

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