INDIANAPOLIS - Andre Hollins just might be the Gopher of the future.
But that isn't stopping the dynamic freshman guard -- who keeps getting better when it matters the most -- from being the inspiration of the present.
With the Gophers lacking their starting center and only senior, Ralph Sampson III, the rookie took the reins Thursday. His career-high 25-point performance shot the Gophers to perhaps their most impressive performance of the season: a 75-68 first-round overtime victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten men's basketball tournament.
With a minute remaining in overtime and the Gophers clinging to a 69-68 lead, Minnesota finally seized the chance. Hollins -- who missed the final shot of regulation -- took the ball once more and did not disappoint. He drove to the basket and hit a soft, short jumper to put the Gophers ahead by three before a Rodney Williams dunk, two free throws by Chip Armelin and two critical Minnesota stops sealed it.
"There wasn't really any pressure out there because nobody expected us to come out here and do anything," Williams said.
But now, on the heels of a season that was often defined by late-game disappointment, the Gophers (19-13) -- who got double-digit performances from four players and made 11 three-pointers (five by Hollins) -- have a reason to pick their chins up going into Friday's quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Michigan.
"This is a new beginning for us," Hollins said. "We just want to continue to play our hearts out; it's just the steps you have to play to get to [the NCAA tournament]."
For this game -- one that likely knocked Northwestern (18-13) off the NCAA bubble -- Hollins made all the right strides.
Sampson, according to a team source, was declared out at the last minute after injuring his right knee in practice earlier in the week. In addition to the Gophers missing their starting center, guard Julian Welch was coming in short on practice and potentially rusty after sitting out the previous two games because of a hip injury.
So Hollins -- who finished the first half with 16 points and four three-pointers -- led the way, scoring the Gophers' first three buckets and 13 of their first 15 points. The lift boosted the team to a 15-5 lead over the Wildcats, who missed seven of their first nine shots.
"He's really grown over the season," teammate Austin Hollins said of Andre. "He's learning the system, he's getting better. He had a great game tonight."
Once Northwestern got hot, the Wildcats showed they knew how to play long ball, going on a 17-3 run that featured four three-pointers and pushed them ahead of the Gophers by two at the break. But in the second half, the Gophers went with a smaller lineup -- four guards plus Williams -- and switched up their defense to put more pressure on the Wildcats, who made just two three-pointers after connecting from the distance nine times in the first. With 2:29 left, the Gophers were down by four but got consecutive layups from Welch -- who finished with 11 points and three rebounds -- and Andre Hollins to push it to overtime.
"I told them all, you want to respect more opponents, but fear no one," coach Tubby Smith said. "I think [that] gave them some confidence."
But the Gophers' challenges are far from over. The next one comes Friday. And if they pass that test, the Ohio State-Purdue winner awaits.