Gophers coach Tubby Smith said he believed in a deep bench before heading to play Southern California on Saturday.
In Smith’s 500th career victory, his philosophy matched his personnel.
No. 14 Minnesota handled struggling USC 71-57 in Los Angeles behind Rodney Williams’ first double-double of the season.
The Gophers improved to 10-1 as Smith reached the 500-win plateau.
“It’s a testament to longevity,” Smith said Thursday about his many wins. “It’s a testament to good players I’ve had because I haven’t made a shot since 1973 that’s meant anything.”
For the fifth time in 11 games, four Gophers players scored in double figures.
Williams had 13 points and a season-high 11 rebounds to bounce back from his two-point performance Tuesday against South Dakota State.
He led the way along with Andre Hollins (14 points), Trevor Mbakwe (12) and Joe Coleman (10). Three other Gophers players had at least six points.
Four Minnesota players made three-pointers, as the Gophers started hot, shooting 5-for-13 from deep in the first half.
Smith said Thursday that Mbakwe had “some soreness” in his knee after Tuesday’s game against SDSU, so he’s in no rush to start Mbakwe.
But for the fifth time this season, Mbakwe (26 minutes) saw more playing time than starting center Elliott Eliason (15 minutes).
“I haven’t had to push [Mbakwe] at this point, which is fine,” Smith said Thursday. “I don’t want to push him. I want him healthy in Big Ten play.”
Mbakwe tied a season-high with three assists, adding 12 points and four rebounds against the Trojans.
But the sixth-year senior had a tough time defending USC’s 7-foot-2-inch center Omar Oraby in the second half.
Oraby scored 15 points, all in the second half on 7-for-9 shooting and maneuvered around anyone Smith put in the post — mainly Mbakwe.
The Trojans took advantage of the Gophers’ lackluster defense in the second half.
USC shot 45 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes behind Oraby and guard Byron Wesley, who combined for 13-for-18 shooting and 28 points.
Minnesota never trailed, but it had its lead cut to nine points with five minutes left. But USC shot just 10-for-18 at the line and failed to string together a meaningful run.
Williams, Coleman, Hollins and Mbakwe combined to shoot 18-for-24 from the free-throw line.
“This group is, like I’ve said before, a lot of fun to come to practice,” Smith said of his team. “They’re excited about learning, being around each other, [which] makes it easier to teach and coach.”
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