Smith hopes his Gophers can finish strong

MINNEAPOLIS — Halfway through the Big Ten season, the Minnesota men’s basketball team sits at 16-6 overall and 4-5 in conference play. Coach Tubby Smith’s Gophers squad earned a signature win against then-No. 7 Indiana and is currently riding the high of Saturday’s overtime victory at home against Illinois.

Still, it’s hard to say what we know about this Gophers team that is playing without star senior Trevor Mbakwe, who has been out since Nov. 27 after tearing his ACL. Minnesota opened the Big Ten season with four consecutive losses, only to reel off wins in four of its next five games.

So Smith was asked a question Tuesday that caused him to pause and reflect: What exactly is the identity of his team?

“We’re not an overwhelming team,” Smith said. “Our identity has got to be one that we can execute down the stretch. Just looking at the last couple wins, Indiana and Illinois, I’d like for that to be our M.O., that these guys are never out of it. We’ve been able to come back, and I think that our identity should be our poise.”

Poise seems to be an interesting choice of words to describe a team that has one healthy senior and only two juniors who play regular minutes. The Gophers’ roster is made up of a handful of underclassmen.

“It hasn’t been our senior and juniors. It’s been our freshmen and sophomores making some clutch plays in these games,” Smith said. “I think it’s just experience. Over time, it’s understanding the journey.”

One Minnesota sophomore who has perhaps shown as much poise as anyone on the team has been guard Austin Hollins. In Saturday’s overtime win against the Fighting Illini, Hollins hit a key 3-pointer late in the second half to bring Minnesota to within a point.

With five seconds remaining, Hollins converted a game-tying 3-point play. After he was fouled in traffic on a layup, he made his free throw to send the game to overtime, where the Gophers eventually prevailed.

“I’m glad we got Austin back in the game. He was out because he had four fouls,” Smith said. “We get him back in the game, he makes two great shots and the layup to (send it to overtime). I’m not sure if someone else could have done that, to be honest with you.”

Hollins finished the game with 14 points, tied for the team high along with fellow sophomore Chip Armelin. In Minnesota’s upset win over Indiana, Hollins led all Gophers with 18 points — including two key free throws with 15 seconds remaining — as they knocked off the Hoosiers by a 77-74 final in Bloomington.

“I really hustled and I was playing defense, really energetic on the offensive and defensive end,” Hollins said of the Indiana game. “I think that’s something I can bring to the team is the defensive energy.”

Added junior forward Rodney Williams: “We know what Austin can do. It was just a matter of time when it was going to be consistent. … When he plays defense like that, his offense, it just comes to him.”

While Hollins takes pride in his defense, he’s also been an offensive spark for the Gophers as he’s hit double-digit scoring in four of his last five games. He’s Minnesota’s third-leading scorer, averaging 8.7 points per game. He’s hit more 3-pointers (25) than anyone else on the team.

“He’s a guy we like the ball in his hands in those situations because he’s making good decisions,” Smith said. “He’s making shots, too.”

On Wednesday, Hollins and the Gophers will face an Iowa team they lost to once already this year. The visiting Hawkeyes escaped Williams Arena with a narrow 64-62 win after Minnesota couldn’t quite close the gap late in the game.

“I think we let one slip away last time we played them,” said Williams, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds in the loss to Iowa. “We’re going to come out ready to play (Wednesday) night.”

That game was back on Jan. 4, which for Minnesota seems like a season ago. Since then, the Gophers have won four of six, including a pair of road wins.

They’ve also learned how to hang tough with teams until the final buzzer, something that could come in handy Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“It’s all about execution,” Smith said. “I think they’re gaining confidence in that, ‘Hey, we can win these close games. We can find a way.'”