Updated: January 17th, 2014 12:42am
New formula gives Richard Pitino's Gophers signature win over Ohio St.

New formula gives Richard Pitino's Gophers signature win over Ohio St.

by Pat Donnelly
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - Just last week, a wise basketball observer (OK, it was me) told Gopher Nation that this year's men's basketball team would go only as far as Andre and Austin Hollins carried it.

On Thursday night, that theory was disproven. Emphatically.

The Gophers got their first signature win under Richard Pitino with a 63-53 victory over No. 11 Ohio State. The old barn was shaking, the sellout crowd was roaring, and the Buckeyes came apart at the seams in the second half.

But the Hollins guards had a quiet night. Andre scored 10 points - 6.3 below his season average - while Austin chipped in six points and four boards. In the first half, they combined to take just two shots - Andre made a layup in transition, Austin missed a 3-pointer from the wing. Neither of them got to the free throw line either. Two field goal attempts, from the guys who are the face of the program, and yet the Gophers entered the locker room after 20 minutes tied at 29.

That wasn't necessarily a huge surprise for Austin Hollins, who is off to a dreadful start in Big Ten play after a strong nonconference season. In Minnesota's first four Big Ten games, Austin Hollins hit just 10 of 36 shots, including 4 of 22 if you take out his one decent game against Purdue.

But Andre Hollins, the Gophers' leading scorer, came into Thursday on a six-game streak of scoring in double figures. He's no shrinking violet on the court. He's jacked up at least 10 shots in 12 games so far this year.

So Andre, what was going on in the first half?

"I gave them too much credit," Hollins said of Ohio State's top-ranked defense. "I wasn't trying to force it. I let their defensive presence kind of take away from my aggressiveness. I wasn't aggressive enough."

At halftime, he said the coaching staff gave him a not-so-subtle reminder that he wasn't contributing the way he needed to.

"They said I wasn't looking to drive, I wasn't even looking for my shot, so I just had to get aggressive," Hollins said.

Austin and Andre Hollins came around a bit after halftime. Andre hit a couple of huge 3-pointers - one on the Gophers' first possession of the second half, and another that pushed the Gophers' lead to nine points with 2:53 to play. That basket gave Minnesota a three-possessions lead and gave Gophers fans their first whiff of confidence, that their boys just might be able to hold on and pull off this upset.

On the Buckeyes' next trip down the court, the Hollins' duo teamed up for a steal, and Andre fed it ahead to Austin for a fast-break layup that proved to be the dagger.

Pitino said after the game that he hoped it was a bit of a turning point for Austin Hollins, a senior captain whose recent struggles the Gophers have been able to overcome.

"You can tell he's thinking," Pitino said. "He made some great free throws down the stretch. He made some great plays for us. It's just the monkey's on his back a little bit. If we didn't have him tonight, we wouldn't have won the game. He plays so hard. He does a lot of things that you don't see on the stat sheet."

So without either Hollins guard making his usual contributions to the stat sheet, how did the Gophers manage to run away from the 11th-ranked team in the nation? It all started inside, where the Gophers were supposed to struggle this year.

Elliott Eliason, who was named co-captain earlier in the week, rewarded Pitino's faith in him with his sixth double-double of the season (12 points, 13 boards) and fourth in five Big Ten games. Mo Walker spelled Eliason for just six minutes on Thursday, but he made every second count.

In a four-and-a-half-minute span in the second half, Walker scored and was fouled on consecutive possessions, grabbed two rebounds and had a steal. The Gophers were tied when he entered the game and led by seven when he left. They didn't trail the rest of the night.

The Gophers ended up winning the rebounding battle 39-24 and outscored the Buckeyes in the paint 38-20. This is a team that was supposed to struggle inside, but thus far in conference play the Gophers' interior play has become a team strength.

Eliason told reporters after the game that the coaching staff emphasized how vital a big night would be for him and Walker.

"I knew it was going to be very important. We talked about it a lot in film and in meetings. We watched film and we saw things," Eliason said. "We knew if we didn't score inside we were going to be in for a long night so we had to have that interior presence, get it inside-out to be able to compete tonight."

Meanwhile, the Gophers got another big game from DeAndre Mathieu, which is sort of becoming routine at this point. Mathieu was Minnesota's leading scorer with 13 points, and he added five assists, four rebounds and three steals in 33 minutes of play. Mathieu is fast becoming the Gophers' most indispensable player, and after two painful losses in their first four Big Ten games, he led Minnesota to its biggest win of the year.

"Coach tells us all the time, just keep pushing," Mathieu said. "We've been in some battles already this year in Big Ten play. We talked to each other after halftime and said, 'We're going to finish this time. This time we've got to finish this game.' We let Michgan go, we let Michigan State go. We finally finished and it feels really, really good man. It feels good to finally get one of those close Big Ten games against a really good Big Ten team under our belt."

Patrick Donnelly covers Golden Gophers men's basketball for 1500ESPN.com. He has covered the Minnesota sports scene, from pros to preps, for the last 15 years for a variety of outlets.
Email Pat | @donnelly612
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