Notebook: Walker, Eliason bolster strong output from Gophers' bench
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AUSTIN, Texas -- On the eve of the Minnesota Gophers' NCAA tournament opener against UCLA, coach Tubby Smith admitted the extreme variations in production from his bench this season had him questioning how he would use his reserves to counter the Bruins.
Ultimately, Smith opted to stick with his typical plan of rolling out 10 to 11 players.
It proved to be the right choice. The Gophers received a steady source of energy from their bench, which served as a key factor in allowing them to eventually dominate UCLA for an 83-63 win and passage to a Round of 32 match-up with No. 3-seed Florida on Sunday.
Attempting to combat the Bruins' short seven-man rotation by grinding them down with physical play, Minnesota had already used 11 players by the 13-minute mark in the first half. Unlike what has happened in several instances this season, the Gophers were able to maintain their momentum when they intersperse reserves in with their starters.
The "U" bench accounted for 12 points - one more than its combined total in the team's last two games - and 11 rebounds.
Smith leaned on back-up big men Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker to strengthen the Gophers' inside presence in a first half when forward Rodney Williams went to the bench with two early fouls. Eliason and Walker were responsible for three of the Gophers' first four baskets from the floor. Eliason served as another critical post option on the defensive end alongside starting forward Trevor Mbakwe.
"I thought our bench was very effective," Smith said after earning his first NCAA tournament victory in his six-year tenure with the Gophers. "I can't say enough about Mo, Elliott ... Oto (Osenieks) came in and gave us what we needed. That's what we expect from these guys ... I was planning on playing a lot of people, because we wanted to try to force the action, push the ball and press."
The Gophers finished the first half on 21-10 run even with Williams and fellow starter guard Joe Coleman on the bench for the duration. Smith relied on all five of his starters more in the second half, but the base of the lead that grew as high as 23 points had been set in place in part due to an increased output from the bench.
Walker, who had barely played in recent weeks, scored for the first time in five games. The 6-foot-10, 289-pound forward logged eight minutes - two higher than his season average.
"Mo has really gotten better," Smith said. "He's in shape now and I thought that was a huge, huge difference maker in the game."
Coleman quietly stands out
Although partly lost in the shuffle as a result of Andre Hollins' game-high 28-points and Austin Hollins' 4-of-6 mark from 3-point range, Joe Coleman's strong second half outburst buoyed the Gophers' knock blow on the Bruins in the second half.
Coleman didn't attempt a shot in the first half and was shuffled to bench after joining Williams with two fouls.
But the sophomore guard played 14 minutes in the second half, earning his place in the game by creating shot attempts and finding ways to score. He converted on seven of his 11 shots to finish with 14 points.
"I got a few open looks and I was able to knock down some of my shots," Coleman said. "I knew after not playing that many minutes in the first half that I was going to have to get some kind of looks, and had to be more aggressive ... I think that was my mentality after the first half."
It was only Coleman's fourth double-digit scoring night in his last 16 games. He had been averaging 6.5 points per game since tallying 29 points against Illinois back on Jan. 9.
• The Gophers are slated to tip-off with Florida at 5:10 p.m. on Sunday. Minnesota defeated the Gators 74-66 in the first round of the 1993 NIT in the only previous meeting between the two teams. Florida eased to 32-point victory against Northwestern State Friday.
• At media availability on Thursday UCLA's Travis Wear dismissed Trevor Mbakwe as "not that big of a problem." But Mbakwe held an obvious advantage against UCLA. Wear, thrown out of whack by a rash of fouls, scored four points with a 1-for-4-conversion rate from the floor to go with five rebounds. By comparison, Mbakwe patiently waited for openings as he went on to post nine points (4-of-7) and 12 rebounds.
"I wanted to come out and be aggressive," Mbakwe said. "We were able to get them into foul trouble. That definitely helped us. When they trapped we were able to make plays and hit the open shots."
• University of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague and associate AD Mike Ellis both made courtside appearances Friday. Teague is scheduled to head back to Minneapolis to attend the Gophers women's hockey team's NCAA Frozen Four championship game against Boston University on Sunday.