Short-handed Gophers receive boost from frontcourt duo
NOV 21, 2013 8:25p ET
Playing with a small lineup for most of the night, Minnesota easily dispensed of visiting Wofford. Thanks to big contributions from big men Oto Osenieks and Elliott Eliason, the Gophers handed the Terriers a 79-57 loss to improve to 5-0 in the Richard Pitino Era.
King, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, did not play Thursday after suffering an injury Tuesday against Coastal Carolina. And Walker, a 6-foot-10 center, is still suspended for violating team rules, a suspension that ends after Minnesota’s game on Monday against Syracuse. That meant the 6-foot-8 Osenieks and the 6-foot-11 Eliason had to log plenty of minutes as the Gophers’ two big men.
The duo combined for 25 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks, along with 51 total minutes.
“Oto and Elliott were tremendous,” Pitino said after the win. “(Eliason) continues to grow, continues to get better. And you’re playing without two guys who play significant minutes. And then Oto was very good offensively. I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now.”
Osenieks set a new career high with 14 points, besting his previous career high of 13 -- a mark he set on Tuesday against Coastal Carolina. Twelve of Osenieks’ 14 points came in the first half, but he ran into foul trouble and played just five minutes after halftime.
That opened the door for Eliason to have a big second half. The junior from Chadron, Neb., finished three blocks shy of a triple double after scoring 11 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and swatting seven shots.
Given that none of Wofford’s starters were taller than 6-foot-8, Eliason figured he might be able to do some damage against a smaller Terriers lineup. He did just that with a career-high seven blocks.
“It’s my job to protect the rim off the break. That’s what I did,” Eliason. “It just happened to end up that way.”
As good as Eliason was defensively, he also helped carry Minnesota offensively. After the Gophers jumped out to a big lead early, Eliason converted a three-point play to put Minnesota up 32-11 midway through the first half. He later took a pass in the post from Maverick Ahanmisi and scored to make it a 45-24 Gophers lead.
While Minnesota is looking forward to getting King and Walker back, the Gophers were able to survive -- and thrive -- with a smaller lineup Thursday, often playing with four guards on the court.
“It was a good experience for me,” said Osenieks, who played center for the first time in his Gophers career. “We had to adjust, but Joey’s going to be back soon I think. … Our job when we’re small is to rebound and run fast, so we did our job rebounding and we also executed the fast break.”
Pitino said after the game that he hopes King will be back for Monday’s game against Syracuse, although the team will reevaluate things on Saturday when they practice. King was knocked out of Tuesday’s game when he fractured his jaw in a collision with teammate Andre Hollins. He watched Thursday’s game in street clothes on the bench.
The sophomore transfer from Drake scored 20 points in his Gophers debut against Lehigh and had 10 points and seven rebounds in a win against Richmond last week. When King does return, as well as Walker, Minnesota should have much more depth in the frontcourt than it did on Thursday night.
“To come back (with) one day of prep, to come with that type of defensive intensity was really good, and to do it without Joey King was very hard,” Pitino said. “It was a hard game to coach in that sense.”
With a shortened bench, a smaller lineup and a trip to Maui on the horizon, the Gophers could have easily sleepwalked through Thursday’s game. But Minnesota kept the foot on the gas all game and never let the Terriers close the gap.
Credit Osenieks, Eliason and senior Austin Hollins -- who scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds while playing out of position at power forward -- for maintaining the intensity from start to finish.
“It’s funny, I really believe it’s harder to play these games than it is at Richmond or Syracuse in Maui. We don’t have to get them excited for those games,” Pitino said. “That was a tough game for me to coach because I kept looking at the bench, I’m like, ‘Well, what position is he going to play? What’s he going to do?’ Because normally you have an idea of your rotation. So then your backup four-man now becomes your backup five-man. So we had to figure out a couple different things. It was a bit of a challenge. I’m happy we got through it.”
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