Walker, Mathieu star for surging Gophers in place of injured Hollins
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS – It seemed like the only person who wasn't worried about the Gophers losing Andre Hollins on Wednesday night was Andre Hollins.
The Gophers lost their leading scorer just 12 seconds into the game, but his teammates rallied around each other to beat ninth-ranked Wisconsin 81-68 at a raucous Williams Arena.
Hollins hit a 16-foot jumper on the game's first shot, but he rolled his left ankle as he landed on the foot of Wisconsin's Josh Gasser. Hollins remained on the ground in obvious pain for about a minute before being helped to the locker room. Suddenly the Gophers had to face their archrival – a top-10 team that had won 16 of the last 21 games against Minnesota – without Hollins' nightly 16-point contribution.
No worries. Hollins knew his teammates had his back.
"Of course I wanted to be out there with my teammates, but at the same time I trust and I believe in them," he said. "I go to battle with them every day, so I wasn't worried when I went out."
Senior guard Malik Smith, who replaced Hollins in the lineup and played a season-high 34 minutes, admitted after the game that he wasn't quite as confident at first, but a reminder from head coach Richard Pitino helped give the rest of the team the boost it needed.
"I'm not going to lie – we were pretty deflated when it first happened," he said. "But Coach told us we work hard day in and day out, each and every one of us, so we shouldn't be afraid of the moment."
Even with Hollins on the floor, it would take a full team effort to beat the Badgers on a good night. But Wisconsin has suddenly hit the skids, having lost three straight games after a 16-1 start. On Wednesday, the Gophers flat-out dominated them inside, outscoring them 48-24 in the paint and winning the rebounding battle 38-28.
On most nights this season, that inside work would have been done by Elliott Eliason. But on Wednesday, the Gophers' starting center found early foul trouble, never really got on track, and played just 15 minutes.
Instead, the breakthrough star of the night was backup center Mo Walker. Previously known as "the guy who lost 65 pounds this summer and looks like a whole other person," Walker set career highs with 18 points, nine rebounds and 24 minutes played. In his first stint off the bench he scored 12 straight points for the Minnesota, topping by one point his previous career high for an entire game.
Walker has always been something of an enigma in his time on campus. First he was too overweight to be effective. Then he lost weight to fit into Pitino's system, but still appeared to be too laid-back to be a difference maker in his time on the court. Pitino said that on Wednesday, the light bulb finally seemed to turn on for Walker, who posted up the height-challenged Badgers, called for the ball and delivered time and again.
"I don't know if it was me as much as he decided," Pitino said. "Every play that we run for the most part, whether it's a pick-and-roll or a baseline runner, it ends in a post-up. But he demanded it. We wrote the keys on the board and we said, 'Bigs, you have to demand the ball. Guards certainly have got to pass you the ball. You have to demand it.' He was posting up so big that guys had to throw it in there. So it was more him than me."
Walker took advantage of the absence of Badgers 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and sat on the bench the rest of the first half. But he also reacted to the Gophers' injury-related lineup change and came up with the best game of his Gophers career.
"Andre went out early so I knew we needed some kind of energy and scoring off the bench," Walker said. "I just tried to go out there and play aggressive. They were kind of undersized so I took advantage of that. We went inside early and I ended up getting into the groove early and just kept it going the whole first half."
Apparently, Walker's had one of his teammates in his ear all season, trying to get him to play the way he did on Wednesday.
"Mo played incredible," said Hollins, who cheered on his teammates from the training room for most of the game. "He played aggressive. That's what I've been trying to get him to do, play aggressive every time. After the game I was just like, 'That's it. That's exactly what I'm talking about.' He came in and dominated. There's not many people that can guard him when he's being aggressive like that."
In the second half, Kaminsky returned and the Badgers closed off the leaks in their interior defense. No matter. The Gophers turned to point guard DeAndre Mathieu, who put the game away by scoring 13 of his 18 points in the second half and getting his teammates involved.
Smith finished with 14 points, but only one of his trademark 3-pointers as he focused more on taking it to the hoop. Austin Hollins added 11 points, including a thunderous dunk that pushed the Minnesota lead to 12 with 6 minutes to play and all but put the game away. Oto Osenieks scored nine, Joey King added seven, and the Gophers bench outscored Wisconsin's 41-15 on the night.
"I really challenged our bench after the Iowa game," Pitino said. "I said 'You guys are not forcing me to bench guys who aren't playing well.' And I thought Malik and Mo especially were huge (on Wednesday).
"I do think that we've got very good chemistry," he added. "When things are clicking, it's tough to overcome. I think these guys truly believe that the whole is greater than the parts. They've got great confidence because they work really hard."
Injury update: Hollins will have an X-ray and an MRI on Thursday to determine the extent of the damage. He was in a boot and using crutches in the locker room after the game, though he did return to the bench in uniform to watch the end of the game and shake hands with fans after the in. He has missed only one game in his collegiate career, sitting out a game against St. Peter's with a sprained ankle during his freshman year.