Dave Sobolewski had 10 points, five assists and four steals for the Wildcats (9-6, 0-2), who were outrebounded 47-20. That's the fewest rebounds by a Gophers opponent all season.
Reggie Hearn returned for Northwestern after missing two games because of a sprained left ankle, finishing with 11 points. But the Wildcats, missing star Drew Crawford because of season-ending shoulder surgery, couldn't keep up down the stretch.
Hollins hit his first four 3-pointers from almost exactly the same spot on the left wing. After a timeout, he moved to the right corner and swished one from there, too, drawing a chant of his name from the impressed crowd.
Northwestern hasn't won at Minnesota since coach Tubby Smith took over for the 2007-08 season.
This was an important win for the Gophers, who play at No. 11 Illinois and No. 5 Indiana next week. It was the fewest points allowed by Minnesota in a Big Ten game in almost two years, since giving up 45 to Iowa on Feb. 13, 2011.
The Wildcats were stuck with a daunting start to the Big Ten season, with five of their first seven conference games against teams ranked this week in the top 11 of The Associated Press poll, though a lot of teams will face similar stretches this year in this top-heavy league.
In a 94-66 loss to No. 2 Michigan on Thursday, the Wildcats were lured by the Wolverines into an up-and-down, faster pace they can't play. So in this one, coach Bill Carmody made sure his team stayed with the usual deliberate offensive style that complements the tricky 1-3-1 zone defense.
The strategy worked for a while.
The Gophers helped the Wildcats by missing their first five free throws, ending the slide in the final minute of the first half when Williams swished a pair, prompting a mock cheer from the restless crowd and pushing Minnesota's lead to 17-13.
What gives this Gophers team a true advantage over a lot of opponents is defense - currently the conference leader in blocks and steals - to endure a shooting slump in an ugly game. The first offensive highlight came with 14:22 remaining when Mbakwe drove into the lane and finished with a tomahawk dunk to bring the fans to their feet and put the Gophers in front 26-18. He set that up, though, by jumping in the lane and using his exceptional reach to swat a short shot by Alex Olah.
Then Hollins took over. He made two of three foul shots, and Williams cut across the lane to catch the rebound of his miss with one hand and smoothly tip the ball for a banked-in put-back.