MEN'S BASKETBALL: Minnesota knocks off No. 9 Wisconsin
MINNEAPOLIS -- Losing their best player to an ankle injury less than 15 seconds into Wednesday's game against rival Wisconsin could have been the Gophers' worst nightmare.
Andre Hollins had been just short of a Badger killer in his career. The junior had averaged 20 points in four previous games against Wisconsin, but Minnesota was only 1-3 in those meetings.
Hollins never returned after his early injury, but his absence wasn't as big of an absence as it could have been because the Gophers got a lift from starting point guard DeAndre Mathieu and backup center Mo Walker in a convincing 81-68 victory over the No. 9 Badgers in front of a sellout crowd at Williams Arena.
That's two straight victories for Minnesota in the border battle series for the first time since 2009-10.
Mathieu, a junior college transfer, scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half. The physical 6-foot-10, 250-pound Walker was a bit of a secret weapon, finishing with 12 of his career high 18 points in the first half on 6-for-8 shooting.
The Gophers (15-4, 4-3) tried to establish a scoring presence inside with Walker immediately after starting center Elliott Eliason went to the bench with his first foul around the 15-minute mark of the first half.
Hollins scored the first basket of the game before being carried off the floor and into the locker room. He didn't return.
Minnesota got the next three baskets from Mathieu, Oto Osenieks and Malik Smith, who replaced Hollins. And then Walker, who overpowered Wisconsin's much-improved center Frank Kaminsky on several plays, banged his way to the Gophers' next 12 points.
Walker came on strong earlier in the season after missing the first six games because of an undisclosed school policy violation. In his only start for an injured Eliason, Walker had 11 points Dec. 7 in a win over New Orleans.
But Eliason emerged as the Big Ten's top rebounder and shot blocker, limiting Walker's playing time until he played 17 minutes in Sunday's 21-point loss at Iowa.
With his friend and fellow Memphis, Tenn., native sidelined early in Wednesday's game, senior captain Austin Hollins had four steals and scored all of his 11 points in the second half, including an emphatic dunk while being fouled by Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes. His exciting three-point play made it 66-54 with 5:54 left.
Wisconsin tried to rally, and the Badgers cut their deficit to seven midway through the second half. But the 5-foot-9 Mathieu, who was the second-half hero in Minnesota's win at Penn State, scored six straight points to crush the Badgers' spirit.
The Gophers lost their Big Ten opener at home against Michigan, but that is the only home loss this season. And it doesn't look so bad suddenly with the Wolverines off to an undefeated start in conference play.
Minnesota's last two home games have been its two most impressive games -- signature wins over No. 11 Ohio State and now Wisconsin. The upcoming schedule is far from as tough as the previous four-game stretch, which consisted of matchups with ranked opponents Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Finishing that grueling stretch 2-2 no doubt is better than most would have expected for Richard Pitino's team.
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