Gophers top USC behind new Big 3

The trio of Rodney Williams, Elliott Eliason and Julian Welch delivered another strong performance.

The Minnesota mens basketball team shut down the USC Trojans Saturday afternoon in Williams Arena. The Gophers dominated 55-40.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team shut down the USC Trojans Saturday afternoon in Williams Arena. The Gophers dominated 55-40.

Charlie Armitz

ThereâÄôs been a lot of talk about the Gophers menâÄôs basketball teamâÄôs season ending prematurely with the loss of leader Trevor Mbakwe.

Perhaps all that talk has motivated Minnesota âÄî or, perhaps, it has found a new group of leaders to revive hope.

The Gophers defeated USC 55-40 on Saturday at Williams Arena to improve to 8-1 on the season and 2-0 since Mbakwe went down with a season-ending ACL tear on Nov. 27.

Minnesota played lockdown defense for the first 15 minutes and rode the play of Julian Welch and Rodney Williams offensively. A 28-16 halftime lead grew to as many as 17 points in the second half, and the Gophers never led by fewer than 10 points after the break.

âÄúSolid effort all the way around,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúI thought our defense was outstanding, we rebounded the ball well, we played together.âÄù

Welch had a game-high 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting and added six assists. He is shooting 11-for-14 in his last two games.

Williams had 12 points and a season-high nine rebounds and played active defense all night. His four steals and three blocks were both game-highs.

One of his steals led to the highlight of the game âÄî an uncontested 360-dunk in transition that brought the Williams Arena crowd of 11,762 to its feet. WilliamsâÄô dunk gave Minnesota a 24-15 lead and was part of a 12-1 run to end the first half.

âÄúI just wanted to do something to get the crowd into it,âÄù Williams said. âÄúWe were up but I donâÄôt think the crowd was really into it at the time. I feel like that gave us a little boost.âÄù

Starting in place of Ralph Sampson III (ankle), Elliott Elliason had a season-high nine rebounds and played active defense all game. He fouled out with 1:31 to play.

Sampson and Mbakwe have missed the last two games. But with Williams and Eliason playing big minutes as the GophersâÄô primary big men, Minnesota has continued to dominate the paint against unranked competition.

âÄúThe guys that are playing now are doing a fantastic job,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThey have accepted their roles and responsibilities. Our bench has played quality minutes, and that has been a big help.âÄù

Welch started the season on the bench with a bad ankle. Now heâÄôs a starting guard who appears to be brimming with confidence.

âÄúKnowing that IâÄôll be able to play more minutes just lets me know that I can play my game and not have to worry about making a mistake,âÄù Welch said. âÄúIt helps a lot.âÄù

Minnesota shot 9-for-9 from the free throw line and 6-for-13 from 3-point range. USC made three of its first four 3-point shots but missed its last seven.

The Trojans shot 33 percent from the field (16-for-49) and 45 percent from the free throw line (5-for-11).

The Gophers have four games left in nonconference play, all at home. Next up is Appalachian State on Tuesday.