LINCOLN, Neb. — Instead of using the starting lineup that upset No. 1 Indiana last week, the same one that had been starting for most of the Big Ten season, Tubby Smith decided to stick with the group that started in the Gophers’ blowout win over Penn State on Senior Day.
One impressive game against the worst team in the Big Ten made the Minnesota coach switch things up just like that.
While the conference’s top teams shorten their bench and build strong chemistry in a set rotation, Smith is still experimenting with the Gophers, who clearly didn’t know how to respond to the changes in a disappointing 53-51 loss to Nebraska on Wednesday, March 6, in the final game at the Bob Devaney Center.
“It’s not like we’ve got an offensive juggernaut,” Smith said. “Whoever we put in the game, they struggle to score.”
Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman didn’t appear comfortable with their new roles coming off the bench for the second straight game. Coleman didn’t take a shot and went scoreless. Hollins had 14 points but shot 4 for 14 from the field, missing several shots down the stretch.
Rodney Williams was forced to move to small forward because Andre Ingram took his spot inside alongside Trevor Mbakwe, who had a team-high 15 points.
Williams and Austin Hollins both went scoreless as well, combining to shoot 0 for 9 from the field.
Austin Hollins has been asked to handle the ball a lot more recently to take pressure off Andre Hollins, but Smith said that still doesn’t explain his massive slump. The junior guard is 8 for 53 from three-point range in his past 12 games, which includes missing his last 14 shots from beyond the arc.
“Austin is unbelievable in practice; he’s the best shooter in practice,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who we count on. When he’s having a tough time, we have a tough time.”
The same could be said for Andre Hollins, who had started 38 straight games before being replaced by senior Julian Welch on Saturday against Penn State.
How many teams would bring their leading scorer off the bench for back-to-back games in March if there were no disciplinary reasons?
Hollins admitted that not starting affected him “a little bit,” because he was concentrating more on defense than on running the team and creating plays for himself.
“It’s a different mind-set,” Hollins said, “but at the same time I’ve got to knock down open shots.”
Minnesota’s nine-point second half deficit was cut to 39-37 after Hollins’ three-pointer with 6:41 left. A minute later, he had a chance to tie the score but missed a floater on a 3-on-1 fast break. Hollins grabbed his errant shot but got caught stepping out of bounds.
Hollins redeemed himself by hitting two free throws to tie the score 46-46 at 2:21, but he clanked a couple of three-point attempts in the waning seconds that would have answered Nebraska’s Brandon Ubel, who scored his team’s last 10 points.
Mbakwe tried to carry his team with no help from the perimeter. But after scoring nine points in the second half, he went scoreless in the final 7:37 of the game.
Ingram and Elliott Eliason, who came off the bench, gave Mbakwe help inside in the first half with nine of the team’s first 11 points. But both failed to score in the second half.
Smith, who was concerned with his team’s 10-for-20 free-throw shooting, was desperate to find someone besides Mbakwe to make plays at the end of the game. He even went with a three-point guard lineup of Welch, Maverick Ahanmisi and Andre Hollins to try to get a three-pointer to tie the score.
Hollins missed a couple. Ahanmisi missed another, with a chance to tie the score with eight seconds left.
The Gophers must win their regular-season finale at Purdue on Saturday to keep from finishing with the third straight losing Big Ten record under Smith.
“It’s obviously different when you go from a starting role to coming off the bench,” Mbakwe said. “It’s an adjustment for some players. But as a whole, we all have to play better.”