One player hadn’t broken three minutes in the Big Ten slate. The other had managed to shoot only 10 percent from beyond the arc in the past 13 games.
Together, the unlikely pair caught fire Tuesday night, transforming the flickering Gophers into an offensive firestorm.
On the heels of two of the season’s worst losses, putting their team’s NCAA tournament hopes in doubt, freshman Charles Buggs and senior Austin Hollins combined for 40 points and seven three-pointers before the Gophers held on to beat 20th-ranked Iowa 95-89 in by far the biggest victory of the season.
“I’ve always said from Day 1 with Charles — he’s got the best potential of anyone on this team,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “He showed you tonight. He hasn’t played all year and he hits three threes. That’s him.”
Buggs might have gotten it started, but soon, the entire team was flexing its offensive muscles to the delight of a raucous crowd announced at 14,625 at Williams Arena. The Gophers (18-11, 7-9 Big Ten) shot 61.2 percent from the field, with four players reaching double digits: career highs of 27 for Austin Hollins and 13 for Buggs, plus 19 from DeAndre Mathieu and 14 from Andre Hollins.
The Gophers led 80-67 with 8 minutes, 23 seconds to play before Iowa cut that deficit to four, as the suddenly sloppy home team committed turnovers in three of four possessions and began bouncing shots off the rim.
But the Gophers hit 15 of 17 free throws in the final 3:02 to hang on.
“I think it was just our mentality — we came out against Ohio State [on Saturday, a 64-46 loss] and we played a great first half and we just blew it,” Andre Hollins said. “Tonight we kept it going, we fought, we won, we willed our way to victory.”
The Gophers trailed 32-21 a little more than 12 minutes in after Iowa (19-8, 8-6) and Devyn Marble came out swinging. The Hawkeyes set the pace at 99 miles per hour and, much like in the second half of the teams’ first meeting in Iowa City, seemed capable of simply overpowering the Gophers, who sent Iowa to the line 14 times in the first half.
But that’s when the Gophers came storming back.
With centers Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker both in foul trouble and forward Oto Osenieks out because of a left knee injury, Pitino sent in Buggs, who had played in only five games all season.
Almost instantly, the 6-9 forward vindicated that decision.
It started with a three-pointer, pulling the Gophers back within 32-24, and Buggs took off from there. He went 5-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from three-point range, scoring 11 points in the first half after scoring five points all season coming in.
“They were leaving him open like they weren’t expecting him to make it,” Mathieu said. “He made like three. I found him in the corner and he made another one. I was yeah, Buggs, keep shooting. And he didn’t have no problem with that.”
As Buggs came alive, so did Austin Hollins, dramatically breaking out of his slump.
With the pair tag-teaming to light up the scoreboard with three-pointers — Hollins had 18 points by halftime — the Gophers ignited for an improbable 30-9 run.
Marble netted five points in the final 38 seconds to bring Iowa within 51-47, but after scoring 19 points in the first half, he was held to five in the second.
As a result, the Gophers are back on the NCAA bubble with two regular-season games left.