Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  By Tyler Mason  |  Last updated 3/9/14
MINNEAPOLIS -- Austin Hollins hopes Sunday was his last game at Williams Arena. If it's not, that means the Gophers senior guard and his teammates fell short of their goal of playing in the NCAA tournament and instead settled for a trip to the NIT. Thanks in part 14 points from Hollins on Senior Night, Minnesota thumped Penn State by a 81-63 final and inched ever closer to a trip to the Big Dance. "We really want to get into the NCAA tournament," Hollins said after the win, during which he tied the school record for most career games played (134). "So our mindset right now is four in a row to go into the Big Ten tournament, and it starts with Penn State." Indeed, these same two teams will square off in the first round of the conference tournament later this week in Indianapolis. Minnesota couldn't afford to stumble in Sunday's regular-season finale. If it did, an NCAA berth was likely out of the picture unless the Gophers ran the tables in the Big Ten tournament. Now with Sunday's win in hand, Minnesota's path to postseason is a little bit easier -- and the Gophers can thank their seniors for setting the tone. Minnesota jumped out to an early 23-3 lead on Penn State, and it was Hollins -- of course -- who opened the scoring for the Gophers. Senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi, whose playing time has been hard to come by in Big Ten play this year, checked into the game and added instant offense during the Gophers' strong first half. Seven of his career-high 13 points came before halftime, during which Minnesota led 38-24. "Mav wants to play. He doesn't want to start and then be subbed out after 30 seconds. He's a better player than that," said Gophers head coach Richard Pitino, who didn't start Ahanmisi or fellow senior Malik Smith. "Malik wants to play. So I wanted to play them more than anything. I was glad with Mav, he played 13 minutes. "He took advantage of every single minute, because he shot eight times. I said, 'What are you trying to do, make up for lost time?' But I'm happy for him. He's a really good kid." With his parents in the stands at Williams Arena, Hollins scored 11 of his points in the first half on 4-of-6 shooting. After finishing with 14 points, Hollins has now scored 57 points over his last three games, the most in a three-game stretch in his storied Gophers career. He picked a good night to do it, and now enters the postseason with a confidence that was temporarily lost during a midseason slump. "He works so hard every single day. He just needed to see the ball go in," Pitino said of Hollins. "It wasn't anything I could really say. It wasn't like we made any adjustments. He didn't make any adjustments. It's just like, I'm a bad golfer. In golf, you've got to see that ball go on the fairway and you feel great about yourself. Well, that's the same thing with Austin when it came to shooting." Minnesota was in cruise control seemingly from start to finish. While the Gophers' 25-point second-half lead eventually shrunk to just nine after Penn State went on an 11-0 run, Pitino's team pulled away to leave no doubts about Sunday's outcome. With a comfortable lead, Pitino was able to put redshirt junior Oto Osenieks into the game in the final minute. Osenieks checked in with 1:01 remaining and checked out not long after -- just four seconds -- but it was a chance for the Latvia native to be recognized by the Gophers faithful. Though not a senior, Osenieks' playing career is coming to an end due to nagging knee injuries that stem from three surgeries he had as a teenager. He hopes to stay around the team next year to help the team with day-to-day operations and as a video coordinator. "The last few weeks have been pretty emotional," Osenieks said. "(Pitino) told me at the last two-minute mark, he said he's going to sub me in and sub me out. ... I'm kind of disappointed I didn't get to have the last game. It really meant a lot to me the support from the crowd, and coach Pitino let them honor me today." This year's senior class isn't finished. Minnesota likely needs at least one win to make it into the NCAA tournament, and it'll have its first chance on Thursday in Indianapolis. After a day the seniors described as bittersweet, they're focusing on what lies ahead. "I think our confidence is really high," Hollins said. "Guys are playing at a high level. I think guys really believe that we can go and win this thing." Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter
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