DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Big Ten experience for Minnesota senior Austin Hollins has been falling behind early in the race and never catching up.
Hollins and the Gophers sidestepped consecutive losses to start conference play by building a big lead and preserving it down the stretch with some good old-fashioned foul shots.
Hollins had 18 points and nine rebounds, and Minnesota went 23 for 27 from the free-throw line to hang on for an 82-79 victory over Purdue on Sunday, the first in the Big Ten for new coach Richard Pitino.
“I know the grind of the Big Ten season, and I know how long it is,” Hollins said. “I know how tough it is. I know what it’s like being in that situation that if you dwell on a loss, it can turn into two losses or three losses. I think the guys did a good job of not letting that get to them and being ready to play.”
Andre Hollins added 17 points and five assists and made 9 of his 11 foul shots for the Gophers (12-3, 1-1), who led by as many as 19 points in the second half before surviving a spirited comeback. The Hollinses combined for only 14 points on 4-for-19 shooting against Michigan on Thursday, including just two points for Austin Hollins.
The Boilermakers (10-5, 0-2) grabbed 21 offensive rebounds to stay in the game, and after Malik Smith missed two free throws with 4 seconds left, Kendall Stephens had a half-court heave to tie it. That fell well short. Stephens hit a 3-pointer right before that sequence from the top of the key to pull Purdue within three points.
“We just played harder the last couple minutes than, really, we played the rest of the game — especially defensively. That’s something that you can’t do,” said Terone Johnson, who led Purdue with 18 points. Ronnie Johnson had 12 points.
Despite the momentum shift over the final 8 minutes, Pitino praised his team’s performance and Purdue coach Matt Painter was down on his. The Gophers shot 50 percent from the floor and went 11-for-24 from 3-point range, setting crisp screens and using them wisely. Andre Hollins was fouled on all but one of the jumpers he took in the first half, and he swished that from 3-point range.
Elliott Eliason also successfully fronted fellow 7-footer A.J. Hammons in the post, holding him to seven points, three shots and one rebound. Eliason had eight points, seven rebounds and six blocks.
“I have to do better work posting up, which I was, posting up, but everybody’s got to do a better job with the ball, and attacking,” said Hammons, who had 18 points plus a career-high 16 rebounds, five blocks and four assists on Tuesday against No. 3 Ohio State.
“When we penetrate, we have to do a better job of probing and seeing what’s available,” Painter said. “But our bigs have to do a better job of moving, too.”
The Gophers led 70-54 with 7:10 left, but Terone Johnson and Sterling Carter hit 3-pointers to bring Purdue within 76-72 with 2:16 remaining, the closest the Boilermakers came since the same mark in the first half. Until Smith’s misses, though, the Gophers sank six straight foul shots over the closing minutes to stay in front. DeAndre Mathieu added 11 points and four assists.
Austin Hollins and Oto Osieneks hit 3-pointers around a two-handed block by Eliason late in the first half, and Austin Hollins had another one before the break to push the lead to 42-35. Shortly after halftime, Austin Hollins found an opening on the baseline and soared to the rim for a tomahawk dunk that put the Gophers up by 10 points.
“He’s such a big part of this team. It’s awesome to see him get back in rhythm,” Eliason said. “When he’s shooting long we’re really confident that we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
For the Gophers to keep up in the top-heavy Big Ten, with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State all ranked this week in the top five of the Associated Press poll, this was one of those games they simply had to win after dropping a 63-60 decision here three days ago to Michigan. Up next for Minnesota is a trip to Penn State. But then comes a four-game meat grinder: at Michigan State, against Ohio State, at Iowa and against Wisconsin.
“You want to focus on the negatives, but we’ve got to remember that for about 80 percent of the game we played great defense, we rebounded the basketball, we were really efficient offensively,” Pitino said. “So we’re going to look back at this film and we’re going to learn a lot.”
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