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Updated: February 3rd, 2013 5:26pm
Sandell: Austin Hollins bails Gophers out in an ugly, but crucial win

Sandell: Austin Hollins bails Gophers out in an ugly, but crucial win

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- When talking to Austin Hollins in the locker room after a game, the junior guard rarely alters his demeanor.

Win or lose, Hollins always answers questions in his calm, levelheaded manner, often deflecting any praise placed on him towards his teammates.

Even after his game-high 17-points and his critical 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining salvaged a gritty 62-59 victory Sunday afternoon against Iowa, Hollins was unchanged, equipped with his usual subtle sense of determination.

"It was pretty much drawn up like that," Hollins said of the play that helped to free him up for his game-winning shot. "There were some other screens that were supposed to take place, but I saw some daylight and just let it go."

But the true highlight of Hollins' late-game performance came seconds after the shot. As Iowa hurried to reverse the one-point deficit it faced with little time left, Hollins swarmed in on guard Mike Gessell and forced him into a turnover that ultimately sealed the final result.

"You're down by two, he hits a three, that was huge," said guard Andre Hollins, who ended up two points behind Austin with 15. "He came down and made a great defensive play. His execution at the end of the game was perfect. That's what we have to do throughout the season."

Hollins' ability to often remain unaffected by the stakes of key situations was the saving grace for the Gophers in a game that for much of the second half was controlled by Fran McCaffery's pesky Hawkeyes.

For a lengthy stretch, the Gophers were teetering towards a potentially embarrassing loss at Williams Arena. A defeat would have destroyed the injection of much-needed confidence they received after a 19-point win against Nebraska halted a four-game losing streak last Tuesday.

Iowa did everything it could to make that possible. After an early screaming fit by McCaffery during a first half timeout, the Hawkeyes awoke to answer a 14-2 start by the Gophers with a 26-15 run to finish the half trailing just 29-28.

"They started hitting shots and we started having miscues defensively," Andre Hollins said. "They got a lot of uncontested looks and they hit them, they knocked them down. That was the difference between beating them by 15, 20 and us winning by three."

Iowa didn't relent. Every time the Gophers appeared to be building for a run, the Hawkeyes had a response, keeping their opponent from finding a rhythm. Getting steady scoring from throughout its lineup, Iowa aggravated the Gophers with numerous second chances off of 10 offensive rebounds.

Minnesota's tendency to derail itself with self-imposed mistakes and mental breakdowns seemed like it would again be the main storyline -- a running theme throughout its losing skid.

"It is frustrating," Smith said when asked about Iowa's knack for disrupting his squad near the basket. "I turned around and said, "How could we not get that ball?" We had our hand on balls, but we were putting one hand on it, instead of two."

"Inside that was a real problem for us. We weren't going up with two hands and they were really diving and getting to the ball."

Though the Gophers deserve plenty of criticism for the breakdowns that nearly culminated in a loss, they managed to find the resiliency to save an ugly game from becoming a scar on their now 5-4 Big Ten record (17-5 overall).

Hollins was a prime example of that.

Inconsistency on offense has been Hollins' main flaw this season. Numerous times he has followed standout performances with ineffective outings. Hollins had scored only eight points in two games before putting up 13 against Nebraska. On Sunday, he was locked in again.

Hollins and fellow guards Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman combined for 22 points in the second half. Austin Hollins finished with a 3-of-8 mark from 3-point range -- 5-of-12 from the floor -- and was tagged with only one turnover.

That has to become closer to the norm for Hollins. The Gophers feed off the junior captain's poise and need him to be a consistent threat to have success in the stretch run of Big Ten play. The lack of contribution from their bench -- zero points against Iowa - has made it even more imperative for Hollins and the entire starting lineup to avoid long-term slumps.

On Sunday, Hollins delivered for the Gophers when they needed it.

It was a victory that they won't look back at fondly, but it was another step towards preventing this team from experiencing a third-straight late-season collapse. Sunday's win was only the Gophers' third in 16 games in the month of February, dating back to the 2010-11 season.

At least for now, an early onset of the February doldrums has been averted.

"We couldn't afford to lose a game at home," Smith said. "We had one foot in the grave, but we were able to dig our way out and crawl our way back in it ... We had gotten down and lost our composure, but I'm really impressed with our guys in how they recovered from that."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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