Minnesota tops USC behind new Big Three

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

Charlie Armitz

The Gophers men’s basketball team defeated USC 55-40 on Saturday at Williams Arena to improve to 8-1 on the season.

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 halftime.

“Solid effort all the way around,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. “I thought our defense was outstanding, we rebounded the ball well, we played together.”

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 — an uncontested 360-dunk in transition that brought the Williams Arena crowd of 11,762 to its feet. Williams’ dunk gave Minnesota a 24-15 lead, and was part of a 12-1 run to end the first half.

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 Trevor Mbakwe, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, have missed the last two games. But with Williams and Eliason playing big minutes as the Gophers’ primary big men, Minnesota has continued to dominate the paint.

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

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.