MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota’s rejuvenating victory over rival Iowa was complete, and video of coach Richard Pitino’s postgame address to the players was being captured for one of the program’s multimedia productions.
Pitino’s pep talk went right to the point: Austin Hollins.
The revered senior, his final Big Ten season mired in a mystifying slump, bounced back with the game of his life. The Gophers sure benefited from his career-high 27 points, but they expressed as much gratitude for the example he has set for this team.
“Austin’s not playing well and everybody’s doubting him, and the one thing you can all learn from him — top to bottom on this team — is the most impressive thing about him is he’s the first one in the huddle to cheer everybody up,” Pitino told the players after beating the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes 95-89 on Tuesday. “He’s the first one at practice to talk, to lift everybody up. There’s a reason why he’s successful, and he gets out of that and he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. That was a big-time performance.”
Pitino then turned to Hollins, who sat steely-eyed and stone-faced as usual.
“I’m so happy for you, because I know how hard you work and you deserve success,” Pitino said, recasting his focus to the entire team. “And it’s not always going to happen right away. We talk about pounding that rock, pounding that rock, and nobody does it more than him. Nobody does it more than him.”
Like his predecessor here, Tubby Smith, Pitino has routinely praised Hollins without prompting.
His performance against Iowa, which included 8-for-10 shooting from the floor, 4 for 6 from 3-point range and 7 for 7 from the free-throw line plus four rebounds, four assists and two steals, was more powerful in context of the previous game. At Ohio State, he put up only two points with three turnovers.
In fact, after playing 51 minutes in a triple-overtime loss at Purdue on Feb. 5, Hollins totaled just 32 points over the next five games before facing Iowa. He took only three foul shots, going four whole games without even getting to the line, and accumulated 10 fouls and 12 turnovers over that span while shooting only 13 for 34 (38.2 percent).
Each day after practice, however, Hollins stayed late to work on that off-rhythm jump shot.
“Austin is calm all the time. When he was struggling, he just got back in the gym and kept working,” teammate DeAndre Mathieu said. “He’s our leader. We expect to follow his lead.”
The son of former NBA coach Lionel Hollins, he’s still averaging career highs in points (11.4 per game) and rebounds (5.8). But Hollins had only two points in the conference opener on Jan. 2 against Michigan, and over these 16 Big Ten games he has only notched double-digit points seven times.
The confidence came roaring back this week.
“You feel like you can make them from anywhere when you start knocking down shots,” Hollins said.
The Gophers (18-11, 7-9) have enough wins over elite opponents that they’re a good bet to make the NCAA tournament, but there are no guarantees. Beating the Wolverines on the road in the rematch on Saturday afternoon would go a long way toward sealing their spot.
Pitino has avoided the topic with his team. Speaking to reporters prior to practice on Friday, he acknowledged the situation.
“I understand we’re getting to that point. I’m not acting like it’s a non-issue. But we just want to beat Michigan. We know it’s going to be really hard,” Pitino said. “The time to politic is not now. Maybe in a week or two.”
As always, the Gophers would be wise to mimic that steadiness that Hollins has shown.
“If he was emotional, he would’ve really lost his mind in some of those games so maybe it has helped him,” Pitino said. “I think he’s really, really positive. I think he really believes if he continues to work hard good things are going to happen to him.”
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