MINNEAPOLIS (AP)— Lamenting the loss of Trevor Mbakwe in the form of self-pity was going to do Minnesota’s players no good.
In their first week without their injured star, the Gophers handled his absence with calm and confidence on their way to a couple of victories.
Rodney Williams had 12 points — including two dunks — plus nine rebounds and four steals to give Minnesota some energy for a 55-40 victory over struggling Southern California on Saturday.
Center Ralph Sampson III missed his second straight game with a sprained right ankle. Sampson and Mbakwe are the Gophers’ only seniors.
“Any time two of your better players and veterans go down, you might start to worry,” Williams said, “but we’ve got a group of young guys that are ready and focused who can come in and get the job done.”
One of those is junior-college transfer Julian Welch, who scored 16 points with six assists. Williams scored in double digits for the second straight game after moving from the perimeter into Mbakwe’s power forward spot. Austin Hollins added 11 points on three 3-pointers, and the Gophers (8-1) used a 12-1 run to close the first half and cruise through the final 20 minutes.
Maurice Jones had 14 points, three assists and two steals for the young Trojans (4-5), who have missed the 60-point mark in five of their nine games. Sophomore center Dewayne Dedmon, who suffered a stress injury to his right foot, returned ahead of schedule but was a nonfactor against freshman Elliott Eliason.
Eliason, who started for the second straight game for Sampson, had four points and nine rebounds before fouling out. Minnesota had a 34-24 advantage on the boards over USC.
The Gophers were 9 for 9 at the free-throw line, all in the first half, and the Trojans made just 5 of their 11 foul shots.
Mbakwe’s senior year ended early when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in last weekend’s loss to Dayton. The lanky high-flying junior Williams might be more comfortable in his new place. Having Welch play so well at the point has been helpful, too.
“As other teams see his confidence growing and see that he’s pretty much doing what he wants to do,” Williams said, “they’re going to come out and commit to him, and when they’re doing that other people are open.”
He picked up a loose ball in a scramble near midcourt and, with no defender to worry about, threw down a 360-degree dunk that brought the crowd to life and gave the Gophers a 24-15 lead. He caught a slick pass across the lane from Welch for another slam in the second half that stretched the lead to 41-23, the biggest of the game for Minnesota.
“Rodney’s been playing outstanding. Moving him back to that ‘4’ spot where he can use his athleticism and his quickness has been good for him,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “He’s really doing an outstanding job of rebounding the ball. He’s been very steady.”
And he likes to dunk.
“I think I need to find something different to do because people watching are probably like, ‘He already did that,”‘ Williams said.
He said he wanted to get the crowd going. Smith claimed he didn’t see it.
“I don’t care about dunks. I’ll take the two points whichever way can get it. What did he do?” Smith deadpanned. “A 360? Oh, OK. Good for him.”
USC coach Kevin O’Neill was left with only one starter, Jones, from last season’s NCAA tournament team that finished 19-15. Senior guard Jio Fontan tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and had season-ending surgery in September. Leading scorer Nikola Vucevic left early for the NBA draft. The program is still recovering from NCAA sanctions.
“There are going to be some days like this,” O’Neill said. “It’s what happens when you have an investigation and penalties that wiped out two recruiting classes, and then have an injury on top of that that just decimates it.”
The return of Dedmon, the junior-college transfer with an eagle-like wingspan, was certainly a boost for USC. He was in a walking boot and using crutches after missing Wednesday’s game at UC Riverside, the team said he could miss four to six weeks.
O’Neill said the 7-footer was cleared to play in the morning after a pain-free warm-up.
“I thought he did a pretty good job. He hasn’t practiced in a week,” O’Neill said.
Dedmon didn’t score Saturday until a dunk midway through the second half, his only points. He was 1 for 5 from the field with four points and two rebounds. But the Trojans had bigger problems than that. They made only 6 of 28 field-goal attempts in the first half, and they finished 3 for 11 from 3-point range.
“Guys were missing shots that they usually make,” Jones said. “It just wasn’t a good (performance).”
The bright side for the Trojans was only committing 12 turnovers in a road game against a Big Ten team.
“So it wasn’t that bad as we thought it was going to be, but we’ve just got to get back to practice and tweak some things,” Jones said.
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