Illinois’ Malcolm Hill drove baseline early in the second half and cocked the ball back behind his head, preparing to dunk over Bakary Konate.
The ball was blocked out of bounds instead of being flushed through the rim.
But it wasn’t Minnesota’s 6-foot-11-inch center that swatted the would-be dunk into the stands. It was Andre Hollins, a 6-foot-2-inch guard that’s widely regarded as a one-dimensional sharpshooter, who darted from the weak side for the block.
Hollins scored a game-high 28 points and added five assists in the 79-71 victory but his uncharacteristically good defense was a welcome sight for the Gophers, who nabbed their second Big Ten win.
“Heck of a block. I think more than anything, Andre is kind of realizing the clock is ticking and he’s going to make the most of this,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “He’s real confident right now.”
Neither team could build a solid lead in the first half, but Minnesota (13-8, 2-6 Big Ten) separated itself after Hollins’ block. The Gophers went on a 23-10 run for a 15-point lead with five and a half minutes left to play.
“I thought they really imposed their will during that run,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “I do think beyond a shadow of a doubt, the two best players on the floor were Andre Hollins and Mo Walker.”
Walker’s production in the second half helped catalyze Minnesota’s run. After being limited during the first period, Pitino challenged him in the locker room.
“We talked at halftime and just said, ‘you’ve got to have more pride than that. You’re a better player than that.’ He recognizes it,” Pitino said. “Mo really battled on the glass.”
That’s probably an understatement.
The redshirt senior center has struggled to rebound at times this season, but tallied a career-high 13 boards Saturday in addition to 12 points.
Despite Walker’s resurgence, the Illini chipped away at the lead before Hollins’ defense sparked the Gophers again.
Kendrick Nunn slashed down the middle of the lane and Hollins set his feet in front of the basket for a charge.
“He’s been an awesome leader getting guys to come with him,” said DeAndre Mathieu, who was put back into the starting lineup against Illinois. “As long as he’s making shots, then I don’t care how much defense he plays.”
Hollins scored 31 points in Minnesota’s first Big Ten win and 28 more Saturday, going 10-for-15 from the field, after slumping for several weeks.
“I never lost confidence. I just knew I was in a bad slump,” Hollins said. “I was taking the same shots. I just wasn’t hitting them.”
Illinois (13-8, 3-5 Big Ten) put together another run late in the game, forcing the Gophers — who have struggled from the line this year — to hit their free throws.
But on an afternoon punctuated by his complete play on both ends of the floor, Hollins wasn’t going to let his team fall to 1-7 in conference play.
Jaylon Tate fired a corner three-pointer with eight seconds left in the game, but the Illini again found their shot blocked from an unexpected source.
Not in Andre Hollins’ house.
“I’m not very tall,” Hollins said, laughing when asked if he’s ever had two blocks in a game. “This year I’m just locked in. I’m ready to guard and defend and that just makes us a tougher team.”