A star falls early, but Gophers top Wisconsin

Several players stepped up after Andre Hollins’ early ankle injury.

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins slams home a dunk against the Badgers in the second half of Wednesday night's game at Williams Arena. The Gophers upset No. 9 Wisconsin 81-68.

Cole Feagler

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins slams home a dunk against the Badgers in the second half of Wednesday night’s game at Williams Arena. The Gophers upset No. 9 Wisconsin 81-68.

Jace Frederick

The Gophers cruised to an 81-68 win over Wisconsin — their bitter boarder rival and the No. 9 team in the nation.

And they did it without their best player and the face of the program.

Andre Hollins played just 16 seconds before going down with a left ankle injury. He did not return.

“They didn’t need me tonight,” he said after the game. “They played good team basketball.”

In past years, that wouldn’t have been physically possible. Andre Hollins wasn’t only the Gophers’ top scorer — he was the cure-all to every deficiency, the only guy on the court comfortable with getting his own shot.

In the past, when he was out, Minnesota seemed lost, but things have changed.

It started with Mo Walker — who was overweight and underused during his first two seasons — grabbing 12 points in the first half to help build a sizable lead. Walker also chipped in nine rebounds for good measure.

“I knew they were a little undersized out there,” Walker said. “I knew that was going to be an
advantage for us. As soon as I got out there, I just looked to be aggressive.”

Then Oto Osenieks and Malik Smith started making plays they hadn’t made all season. Osenieks ran the court in transition and seemed to make every hustle play imaginable. Smith, a designated sharp-shooter, drove to the lane and finished at the rim and distributed to teammates all night.

“Malik Smith is the real deal,” Badgers head coach Bo Ryan said.

The second half, however, belonged to DeAndre Mathieu. With Walker getting much of the Badgers’ defensive attention down low, Mathieu — a 5-foot-9-inch guard — did whatever he wanted on offense, finishing with 18 points.

Wisconsin finished with no answer for him.

“I thought DeAndre was tremendous,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said.

Then finally, it was Austin Hollins’ turn.

The senior guard, who had been maligned for disappearing during the conference slate, delivered a one-handed slam in the second half that sent Williams Arena into a frenzy.

“My goodness, that was a heck of a play,” Pitino said. “That brought the roof off.”

Mathieu said he and Austin Hollins brought the team together after Andre Hollins’ injury and delivered a simple message: “We good.”

After convincingly beating the No. 9 team in the nation without its best player, pundits across the college basketball landscape are likely thinking the same thing about Minnesota.

This is the Gophers’ second signature win of the season. After the first — a win at home over then-No. 11 Ohio State — they laid a stinker at Iowa.

Now, after finishing a four-game stretch against four top-15 teams during which they went 2-2, the Gophers must move on.

A trip to Nebraska is up next on Sunday, where the Gophers will try to avoid a similar letdown to their loss at Iowa.