Hollins takes court one last time

Austin Hollins has played more games than any player in Gophers history, and he will finish his run this week.

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins waves goodbye after finishing his last home game on Sunday, March 9, 2014 against Penn State.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins waves goodbye after finishing his last home game on Sunday, March 9, 2014 against Penn State.

Jace Frederick

It was the beginning of February, and the Gophers had just lost 55-54 to Northwestern at home — their second consecutive loss to a team they should have beaten.

It was likely the most dejected the locker room was after a game all season.

As members of the media poured in, most players scattered to the showers, not wanting to talk about the disappointment.

Amid it all, there sat Austin Hollins perched at his locker — one of the three or four Gophers who stuck around. Hollins, still in full uniform, sat ready to take questions, ready to answer for his team’s lackluster outing, ready to handle inquiries about another potential collapse.

That’s been his calling card ever since he arrived on campus. Regardless of the situation, win or lose, Hollins has always been there. He’s been the model of leadership, the epitome of consistency.

Those two qualities have led head coach Richard Pitino to repeatedly use the same word to describe the senior guard this season: professional.

“We’re going to miss him,” Pitino said. “When he walks in the gym, he’s always going to bring it. He’s always going to be positive. In every single rep of every single drill, he maximizes his potential. That’s hard to replace.”

On the court, Hollins scored more than 1,000 points as he and junior guard Andre Hollins have established themselves as a formidable Big Ten backcourt. He’s also donned the maroon and gold more times than anyone in the history of Gophers basketball.

Still, off the court, he was so much more. Hollins, a captain for the last two seasons, was a steadying force on a team marred by peaks and valleys seemingly every year.

“He’s a great leader,” Pitino said. “He’s a calming influence. Those are things you don’t coach. I didn’t get that out of him. [That’s] his upbringing, his family and him as a person.”

Hollins fought through arguably the worst slump of his career in the middle of the Big Ten season. He averaged slightly more than eight points per game during a 13-game stretch — well below the standards he’s set for himself throughout his four-year tenure.

Pitino said Hollins never moped or made excuses during that span, but instead utilized his work ethic to find a solution.

Hollins busted out of his rough patch in style, saving the best basketball of his career for last.

In the Gophers’ past eight games, he’s twice set a new career high in scoring, the most recent a 32-point showcase against Southern Miss that helped the Gophers earn a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York.

“Since he went through that slump, he’s been probably the best player on the team every game,” junior guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “It’s big-time. He’s a senior. He doesn’t want it to end.”

This season was supposed to be a huge transition for the Gophers in their first year under Pitino’s tutelage. They had to adjust to new players, a new coach and a completely new style. And because of that, many projected the 2013-14 campaign to be mediocre at best.

It wasn’t, largely in part to Hollins. His leadership helped make the transition nearly seamless.

In the first year of the Pitino era, the program has made great strides, and Hollins helped lay the foundation for the future.

“I think this program is definitely moving forward,” Hollins said. “To be the foundation for what [Pitino is] trying to build, it definitely means a lot.”

Still, one thing Hollins hasn’t done at Minnesota — sans a Puerto Rico Tip-Off title during his freshman season in 2010 — is win a championship.

That could change this week.

The Gophers are two wins away from winning the NIT and ending Hollins’ career with a victory — a rare feat in college basketball.

“I’ve been here for four years, and I’ve worked so hard and put so much into this,” he said. “[To win a title] would mean a lot.”

And even if they don’t, it’s a good bet Hollins will be available afterward to reflect on the outcome. It’s also a safe bet that he’ll handle the aftermath professionally, as he’s done all season and throughout his career — all 139 games of it.