EVANSTON, ILL. - Austin Hollins is one of the most important players on the floor for the Gophers men's basketball team. He averages a team-high 28.8 minutes per game. Coach Tubby Smith lauds him constantly for his work ethic, intelligence and attitude.
When the No. 12 Gophers lost his defense, ball-handling, shooting and leadership for the last 11:47 of Wednesday's 55-48 loss to Northwestern -- Minnesota's third consecutive defeat -- the deficiency was stark.
Smith -- who had sat Andre Hollins for more than 13 minutes against Michigan after the point guard picked up two fouls in the first half -- decided to roll with Austin Hollins against Northwestern after he picked up his third foul early in the second half.
"I put him back in with three fouls, and that's probably poor judgment on my part," Smith said.
"But I thought he was a little headier than that."
When Hollins picked up his fourth with 12:01 to go, Smith made the decision to take him out, and his replacement -- Andre Hollins -- squatted by the scorer's table, ready to go in. But before the switch could be made, Austin Hollins picked up his fifth and final foul 14 seconds later; he swatted at Northwestern guard Reggie Hearn in transition to send him to the foul line for the second time in as many Wildcats possessions.
Smith seemed baffled that the guy he has long called his "most reliable" player would have such a lapse in judgment.
"We had a guy at the table," Smith said. "I don't know what he was doing. ... But in the heat of the moment, I guess, guys make those kinds of decisions."
The 1-3-1 zone defense is nothing new to the Gophers -- in fact, Smith and his team typically see it at least twice a year against Northwestern. But repetition aside, solving it has not gotten any easier. As Wednesday's game went on and the Gophers seemed handcuffed by the zone, they stopped trying to muscle inside and settled instead for forced outside shots, while turning the ball over in bunches.
"It's tough to simulate," Smith said. "We only do it when we're playing against [Northwestern]. We obviously did a poor job of practicing and preparing for it."
• With Austin Hollins gone, the productivity of the Gophers' offensive leader, Andre Hollins, became even more significant. But the sophomore had perhaps his worst game in a Minnesota uniform, going 2-for-9 from the field and turning the ball over seven times.
"He just looked like he panicked, like he was just scared -- the fear of whatever it was," Smith said. "That's what I saw."
• The Gophers had a major scare with 1:44 to go when Trevor Mbakwe went up for a tip-in and came down awkwardly, falling on his right wrist, which he had previously been rehabbing from an earlier injury. The forward lay on the court for nearly a minute as Welsh-Ryan Arena fell silent. Mbakwe downplayed the injury after the game. "I'm just going to rehab it, and it will fine," he said.