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USA TODAY Sports Minnesota guard Andre Hollins dribbles past Michigan forward Jordan Morgan on March 1 at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan won 66-56.

Men's basketball: Gophers' Andre Hollins aims to follow girlfriend Rachel Banham’s lead

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By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Anyone looking at Andre Hollins’ Twitter feed last week could see how ecstatic he was when his girlfriend, Rachel Banham, led the Gophers to a big comeback victory in the Big Ten tournament opener.

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“That my girllllllll!!!!!!!! Let’s gooooooo,” Hollins wrote on his page (@andrehollins) a week ago as the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team erased a 16-point deficit to win 74-68 in overtime against Wisconsin.

Both Hollins and Banham are junior guards and the leading scorers on their respective teams. The women went to Indianapolis last week needing a win to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive, just as the men do this week.

Banham scored 22 points to carry the Gophers to victory and likely the team’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2009. Now it’s her boyfriend’s turn.

The seventh-seeded Gophers (19-12) start the tournament Thursday with a 5:30 p.m. tipoff against No. 10 seed Penn State (15-16).

“You have to be extremely focused,” Hollins said. “The mental part is the biggest key to making a run this late. Everybody has their nagging injuries and everybody’s beat up.”

Coach Richard Pitino said the Gophers need Hollins to play the way he did before suffering a severe ankle sprain Jan. 22. Before that, he was averaging 16.2 points a game; since then, it’s 12.5 points.

After Sunday’s 81-63 victory over Penn State, Hollins said his ankle is “pretty much” healed. But Pitino said he hasn’t seen Hollins play as aggressively as he did before getting hurt.

“He was playing well and then the injury,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if I had very, very high expectations. I thought he was a good player and I think he is a good player. Then he got hurt, and I think it slowed him down.

“Whether or not he’s physically (ready), I think when you have a tough injury like that it takes time. Maybe you feel right physically but mentally not as good. So I think it’s going to take some time. Hopefully, he’s close — because we need him.”

Hollins had a Grade 3 ankle sprain, which on average sidelines a player for at least a month. He returned in two weeks.

“A lot of it was the confidence of just being able to play on his ankle again,” Banham said. “He said it felt pretty good, but a lot of it was mental. Just being able to push and cut off it. I know that was one of the things that worried him the most.”

Hollins was hurt after landing on an opponent’s foot in the opening minute of an upset victory over Wisconsin at Williams Arena. After the game, Banham posted a picture of Hollins’ swollen foot online.

It looked like an elephant’s foot.

She remembers how dedicated Hollins was in the recovery process.

“I’m excited for him,” she said. “I know it was tough sitting out. He did absolutely everything he could to get healthy. He deserves to get back on the court and play well. He did so much in the training room. It’s good to see him out there, but you can tell he’s still trying to get back into the flow of things.

“But I think it’s helped their team so much just having his presence, even if he hasn’t had the biggest games yet.”

Hollins scored 22 points in a loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 13 but hasn’t had more than 15 points in the other eight post-injury games.

It might be time for him to turn it on, though. In his first three seasons, the Memphis native usually saved his best for postseason games.

Hollins was named to the all-tournament team in the Big Ten tournament as a freshman in 2012 after scoring 25 points in a opening win against Northwestern and 21 points in an overtime quarterfinal loss against Michigan.

Hollins also averaged nearly 18 points a game to lead the Gophers to the NIT championship game that year.

Last season, Hollins had 28 points and five assists in a second-round NCAA tournament victory over UCLA, then scored 25 points in a third-round loss to Florida.

“I always take it up another level when it comes to the postseason,” Hollins said. “Just the mentality, not wanting to go home early.”

Banham accomplished her individual goals by leading the Big Ten in scoring and earning All-Big Ten first-team honors. Hollins was hoping to do the same, but his injury derailed what could have been a better conference season for him and his team.

But now he has a chance to surpass his girlfriend with more than one Big Ten tournament win. Two, including a second against Wisconsin, would put the Gophers men back in the running for an NCAA tournament bid.

Does Hollins think they both can make the NCAA tournament?

“Definitely,” he said. “I think they’re in.”

Hollins’ team still has work to do.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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