CHICAGO – When the Gophers’ seesaw Big Ten tournament first-round game was over, Austin Hollins trudged into the Minnesota locker room at United Center. The junior guard took off his shoes, clasped his hands between his knees and tucked his chin down to his sweat-drenched uniform, trying to compose himself.
Minutes earlier, Hollins — whose clutch shots and smart play had helped bring the Gophers back from the brink in their matchup against Illinois — stepped on the sideline with the ball on Minnesota’s final possession with 14 seconds remaining. It was the last play in a sequence in which the Gophers struggled to inbound the ball, and gave the Illini the final shot with the score tied.
Brandon Paul didn’t waste it. The senior guard scored the final two of his game-high 25 points, connecting on an off-balance 15-foot jumper at the buzzer to lift Illinois over Minnesota 51-49.
The Illini had tied the score in the final minute on D.J. Richardson’s three-pointer with 47 seconds left, ending a possession that included four offensive rebounds. The Gophers, stunned at how quickly the game changed, headed off the court before remembering to return to shake their opponents’ hands.
“It hurts to lose like that,” Hollins said. “You have to give [Paul] credit. He hit a tough shot at the end of the game.”
With the basket, the Gophers (20-12) were eliminated from the Big Ten tournament with their third consecutive loss and seventh in 10 games. But despite the loss and an 8-10 regular-season Big Ten record that included bad losses to Nebraska and Purdue near the end, the Gophers are still most likely a safe bet to grab an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament on Sunday because of a high RPI (24 as of Thursday afternoon) and victories against top-20 teams such as Indiana and Michigan State.
Hollins, (16 points, six rebounds) did his best to build some much-needed momentum before that selection date in Thursday’s second half. But he and his team were fighting back from a nine-point halftime deficit after the Gophers fell apart when Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe went to the bench with two fouls apiece, Hollins with 15:49 remaining in the first half and Mbakwe with 13:02 to play. They didn’t return until the second half, leaving Gophers coach Tubby Smith to second-guess himself.
“I have faith in our guys that are coming off the bench. I have faith in them, but belief in themselves is two different things,” Smith said. “Looking back on it, I probably should have played them both.”
Regardless of the long break, Hollins — who broke out of a 0-for-14 three-point shooting slump with a pair of threes in Saturday’s game at Purdue — hit two quick three-pointers in the first two minutes of the second half. When Andre Hollins (13 points, eight rebounds) hit two more threes and Andre Ingram converted a three-point play with 12:42 to play, the Gophers tied the score at 32.
“I was just trying to get as warm as I could in the warmups when we came out in the second half — get some shots up,” Austin Hollins said.
Minnesota, which shot 55.6 percent in the second half compared to only 28.1 for Illinois (22-11), led by five at 43-38 after a Mbakwe dunk with 7:23 to play before the Illini came creeping back. Paul’s fadeaway jumper capped the comeback, ousting the Gophers from the tournament.
The game’s ending — the Hollins turnover, followed by Paul’s buzzer-beater — were like an analogy for the year. In spurts, the Gophers have shown promise. But inconsistent levels of energy, questionable decisions and costly mistakes have made Minnesota what many observers consider one of the most baffling teams in college basketball.
“What can I say?” said Andre Hollins, searching for answers. “We had our opportunities to seal the game. … In crunch time, we didn’t execute.”