Midway through his victory lap with the media, Andre Hollins — smiling and swarmed by reporters — was interrupted.
Gophers teammate Kendall Shell wanted to take a selfie.
Both players grinned into Shell’s iPad for a picture that would be tweeted out with a caption officially declaring Saturday be “@AndreHollins day” following the senior guard’s best offensive performance (31 points, four rebounds) of the past two seasons.
The Gophers’ 0-5 slide and worst Big Ten start since the 2005-06 season — when Minnesota went 0-6 under Dan Monson — was over, and suddenly the locker room was again a place for playful jabs, whooping in the showers and selfies.
Moments after the Gophers pushed past Rutgers 89-80 at Williams Arena, the tense, emotional vibes that had marked the last two weeks were replaced by a new mood.
“Guys are smiling,” point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “The last few games, there has not been too much smiling, no talking, guys just had their head hung. So to see guys upbeat and positive is a really good feeling.”
Hollins, previously shooting just 39.7 percent from the floor, knocked down seven three-pointers and 11 field goals overall. Mo Walker added 16 points and Carlos Morris 12 and the Gophers (12-7, 1-5 Big Ten) got 26 points off turnovers while making just eight miscues of its own as it pulled out of last place in the league.
Myles Mack (26 points, eight assists) led a scrappy Rutgers team (10-9, 2-4), which came back from a double-digit deficit by shooting 57.1 percent from the field in the second half. It trailed 74-68 with 4:13 remaining.
The late surge by Rutgers mimicked a few bad memories — Minnesota has twice lost leads of nine or more in Big Ten play — but this time, the Gophers matched them shot for shot down the stretch. Hollins hit a layup and a pair of free throws and Mathieu celebrated the long-awaited victory with a layup with 33 seconds left.
“It was like we were building a lead and then they would throw a punch,” Pitino said. “Three or four times we did that and then they kept coming back ... I’m happy for these guys. That was a tough couple of weeks there.”
Hollins had 17 points in the first half when the Gophers led by as many as 13 points. After managing to score in double digits just twice in the last seven games, he seemed to have more spring to his step on Saturday, getting open off screens and even dunking on his second basket of the game.
“I didn’t think I was going to have that big of a lane,” he said later. “But I was like well, might as well take it.”
When Walker sat with his second foul with 10:04 to go in the half, the Gophers stalled. Rutgers came back to tie the score at 29, but three three-pointers by Hollins in the final 4:17 kept the Gophers on top 42-37 at the break.
“It energizes everybody,” Walker said of Hollins’ quick start. “When a shot falls the crowd goes crazy and other guys get going.”
Now the Gophers are hoping their first win energizes a run in the winnable stretch ahead — three of the next five are at home and all come against the bottom seven. Pitino knows his team needs to get tougher, more physical and better at the small stuff. Saturday, it was evident that the defense has a long ways to go as well.
For one day at least, though, the fog had been lifted.
“When you lose, you can’t hide and that’s everywhere,” Pitino said. “So I’m happy we can get out of hiding.”