Andre Hollins lifted his head toward the rafters, beat his chest and let out the kind of whoop that’s been absent from maroon-and-gold clad players recently.
Fouled after a long, two-point jumper, the senior guard ultimately missed the free throw.
But it didn’t matter.
The damage — started and sustained by Hollins’ 28-point, five-assist, two-block performance — had been done. The Gophers led by 14 with 3:30 to go, and the announced crowd of 13,421 on hand to see former center Randy Breuer’s jersey retired was swelling.
With momentum on their side, the Gophers put up one of their most physical halves of the season and avoided the usual last-minute dramatics that have characterized their other conference games. Behind a 23-5 run that turned a three-point deficit into a 15-point lead, they pushed past Illinois 79-71 at Williams Arena on Saturday.
Hollins only got better down the stretch. A monster second-half gave Mo Walker (12 points, 13 rebounds) just the second double-double of his career. And Nate Mason hit four free throws in the final two minutes to close out the Gophers’ second victory in three games after ending a five-game losing streak.
“I think it was the toughest we’ve played,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought we really, really battled ... When you lose, you’ve got to block out all the noise and you’ve just got to get tighter as a group and I think we did that.”
A sloppy late stretch — the Gophers (13-8, 2-6 Big Ten) fouled five times and had four turnovers in the final 3:13 — brought back memories of recent games in which late leads turn into losses. It also inspired DeAndre Mathieu to pull Walker aside.
“Our fans have to be like, ‘Man, these dudes never give us a break,’ ” Mathieu said.
This time, though, the Gophers would — clamping down enough to take some of the tension out of the building.
They worked for it.
Mired in a back-and-forth game that featured 20 lead changes and four ties, the score was 44-44 when Hollins was fouled by Ahmad Starks while drilling a three-pointer from the corner.
Hollins converted the four-point play, and suddenly the Gophers were making clutch shots and executing more sharply than they had in weeks. Turning up the defensive pressure, they trapped and kept the Illini (13-8, 3-5) off-balance. The Gophers — the second-worst rebounding team in the Big Ten — then started dominating the glass, ultimately winning the battle on the boards 38-30.
Hollins, who has scored 80 points in the past three Big Ten games after scoring a total of 46 in his first five, set the tone and the pace, knocking down shots off the catch and off the dribble, setting up teammates and even blocking a pair of shots — including a forceful slapdown of Malcolm Hill’s dunk attempt that had the Barn’s guests on their feet.
“We rotated over [in the zone], he just cocked it back and I was like, ‘OK, all right, I’ll block you,’ ” Hollins said, grinning.
Walker, struggling to finish early, didn’t take a shot in the first half, but he came back in the second for one of his best performances of the year on both ends, holding 6-11 Illini senior Nnanna Egwu to just seven points and four rebounds.
“I do think beyond the shadow of a doubt, the best two players on the floor today were Andre Hollins and Mo Walker,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Wasn’t even close. Those guys imposed their will ... we had no answer for either one of those guys.”