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Mbakwe struggles in first start as Gophers cruise

Trevor Mbakwe had five points in 17 minutes in his first start of the season.

Trevor Mbakwe made his debut in the starting lineup Saturday night against Lafayette in the Gophers’ final nonconference game.

Minnesota beat the Leopards 75-50 in front of an announced sellout crowd of 14,625 at Williams Arena – the team’s first nonconference sellout under coach Tubby Smith.

Smith broke up a starting five that had been together since the opening round of last season’s Big Ten tournament March 8.

Despite the change, the Gophers (12-1) came out sluggish again.

Minnesota led 7-6 five minutes into the contest.

“We’ll continue to evaluate [the starting lineup],” Smith said. “I didn’t like [the new lineup] at first.

A lot of it has to do with the rust and having not played in 11 days,” Smith said.

Behind their depth, the Gophers dominated the other 35 minutes of the game, as the Gophers outscored the Leopards’ 42-1 in bench points.

Minnesota had its largest lead of night — 67-37 — with 7:31 left. Seven Gophers players scored at least six points, led by Joe Coleman’s 12.

“Sometimes we’re going to have to go deep into the bench [in Big Ten play],” Rodney Williams said. “And to see everyone play the way they did tonight – it’s encouraging.”

Mbakwe averages 18 minutes this season. Despite starting, he played only 17 minutes.

The sixth-year senior caught an elbow above his right eye after halftime, received four stitches and tallied two rebounds in three minutes in the second half.

He finished with five points, four rebounds and two turnovers.

“We had a pretty good lead at that point, so I think coach felt comfortable not putting me back into the game,” Mbakwe said.

Mbakwe led the Gophers in rebounding (7.4 per game) before Saturday’s game, but Minnesota revealed that scoring wasn’t the only facet of its game that can be a shared burden.

Eight Gophers players had at least four rebounds, and senior guard Julian Welch led Minnesota with six boards.

“There’s going to be a lot more big bodies down there [in the Big Ten], so we’re going to need more guys to crash the boards,” Williams said. “That was another encouraging thing for us tonight.”

Elliott Eliason was the only active Gophers player to not play.

“There’s nothing wrong, but we wanted to make sure [Eliason] understood some things as well,” Smith said.

Minnesota blocked just two shots Saturday. It averages seven blocks this season.

Smith said at practice on Friday that Eliason had to “continue to get stronger,” but he made no indication he wouldn’t play the sophomore Saturday.

No. 13 Minnesota has a chance to bust into the Associated Press Top 10 after both No. 7 Ohio State and No. 10 Illinois lost Friday.

The Gophers open their Big Ten schedule against Michigan State on Dec. 31 at Williams Arena.

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