Slow starts have plagued the Gophers this season, but that hasn’t stopped them from blowing out weaker nonconference foes.
Minnesota trailed North Dakota State with 12 minutes left in the first half Tuesday at Williams Arena, but it recovered to win 70-57.
Trevor Mbakwe had 14 points and a career-high 18 rebounds as the Gophers (11-1) won their 21st-consecutive home game against nonconference teams.
“We got off to a slow start, and I wanted to come in and be an energy guy,” Mbakwe said.
Minnesota missed six of its first seven shots, allowing the Bison (8-3) to stay competitive. Then Andre Hollins hit consecutive three-pointers as the Gophers ended the first half on an 8-0 run.
“That was huge,” head coach Tubby Smith said. “We were struggling and behind early in the game. But that’s what Andre Hollins is capable of doing.”
Rodney Williams scored a season-high 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting and added six rebounds. Two of his points came on a breakaway 360-degree dunk in the first half.
While Smith has touted his team’s depth this season, Mbakwe and Williams made it a two-man show Tuesday. They combined for nearly half the Gophers’ points and more than half of their rebounds.
Mbakwe showed more aggression than he has in any home game this year.
Smith said Mbakwe is developing phases of his game besides pure power. But the coach said it’s still unlikely he’ll put Mbakwe in the starting lineup soon.
“I like him coming off the bench right now,” Smith said.
Guards Austin and Andre Hollins combined to shoot 5-for-17 from the field, but they weren’t needed on offense.
Andre Hollins said Mbakwe and Williams’ presence in the frontcourt “makes life so much easier.”
“Both are scorers on the inside,” Andre Hollins said, “and not many are as athletic as Rodney or strong as Trevor.”
Minnesota took advantage of NDSU’s small frontcourt as Andre Hollins kept feeding Mbakwe the ball down low in the post.
The Gophers made nine steals in the first half. They average 10 steals this season.
“I thought we did enough defensively to keep the Bison at bay,” Smith said.
Gophers starting center Elliott Eliason struggled and got into early foul trouble, which allowed Mbakwe to play more. Mbakwe came in with 18:30 left in the second half after Eliason picked up two quick fouls.
Eliason had zero points and zero rebounds in seven minutes.
“He’s got to get into the weight room here the next few days,” Smith said of Eliason.
The Gophers will now begin a 10-day break due to a University policy on no athletics events during finals.
Ellenson plays, loses redshirt
Freshman Wally Ellenson, who was expected to redshirt after breaking his hand Oct. 30, played his first minutes of the season at the end of Tuesday’s game.
“I think he can be helpful,” Smith said. “You can tell he was a little nervous — fumbled it.”
Ellenson checked in with three minutes left and had one point and one turnover.
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