Gophers hold on to beat Virginia Tech

Elliott Eliason, Rodney Williams and Julian Welch came up big in the win.

Forward Andre Ingram dunks the ball in Wednesday nights game against Virginia Tech at Williams Arena.

Erin Westover

Forward Andre Ingram dunks the ball in Wednesday nights game against Virginia Tech at Williams Arena.

by Charlie Armitz

The question for the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team following Trevor MbakweâÄôs season-ending knee injury was simple.

Which of the remaining Minnesota players would step up to lead the team?

The answer Wednesday was a trio of Gophers players in the second half of a 58-55 win over Virginia Tech.

Minnesota overcame a halftime deficit for the fifth time this season, but for the first time without Mbakwe, who will miss the season with a torn ACL.

Senior Ralph Sampson III also sat out WednesdayâÄôs game with an injured ankle, but redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason stepped in and contributed eight points and seven rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes. He had no turnovers.

Junior Rodney Williams scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half and added a season-high eight rebounds. Williams had just one rebound in his previous two games.

âÄúI didnâÄôt need to hear about those [rebounds],âÄù Williams said. âÄúI already knew I was going to have to step up on the boards. We lost probably the best rebounder in the nation [in Mbakwe].âÄù

Williams scored three of MinnesotaâÄôs last seven points, including an uncontested dunk to put Minnesota up 54-53 after Julian Welch threw him a perfect pass over WilliamsâÄô post defender.

 Welch then added two free throws to give Minnesota a 56-55 lead with 19 seconds left after Virginia TechâÄôs Erick Green scored on a putback.

Green, who led all scorers with 25 points, went down with an injury on the play in which Welch was fouled. He hustled back on defense and blocked WelchâÄôs shot, but fell and skidded off the end of the raised Williams Arena court and appeared to hurt his right shoulder.

With the HokiesâÄô primary ball handler out, Virginia Tech turned the ball over on the next possession with a backcourt violation.

That forced it to foul Welch again, who made both free throws.

Green returned for the HokiesâÄô last possession and missed a desperation 3-point attempt as time expired.

Welch finished with a team-high 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting. He also shot 4-for-4 from the free-throw line.

After the win, Welch said he got down on himself last week when he missed two free throws in the last minute against DePaul. Williams bailed him out, though, when he grabbed an offensive rebound on the second miss and scored.

On Wednesday, it was Welch who bailed out Williams, who missed his chance to give the Gophers a two-point lead with 55 seconds left. Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one that would have given Minnesota some breathing room.

âÄúI thought our kids really stepped up tonight and grew up a lot,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúIt was a gallant effort from all our kids. IâÄôm very proud of how they competed and took care of the basketball.âÄù

Minnesota had just nine turnovers in the win; Virginia Tech had 12.

There has been much talk this season about MinnesotaâÄôs âÄúBig ThreeâÄù of Mbakwe, Sampson III and Williams having to carry the load for the team. But Wednesday, it was Eliason, Williams and Welch that combined to shoot 15-for-19 with 37 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists.

Those numbers, and the win, were hardly expected âÄî and to Welch, it was the lack of expectations that fueled the fire.

âÄúIt was just us against the world, so we came in with that type of mindset,âÄù Welch said. âÄúWe played our hearts out.âÄù

Minnesota held a 38-16 edge in points in the paint despite its undersized lineup.

Virginia Tech won the battle of the perimeter, hitting eight of 17 3-point attempts. The Gophers shot 2-for-13 from beyond the arc.

Next up for the Gophers is a Saturday matinee against Southern California at Williams Arena.