Gophers senior Welch playing with urgency

MINNEAPOLIS — Julian Welch didn’t contribute at all to Minnesota’s upset over No. 1 Indiana last week. The senior guard didn’t even have the opportunity, as he spent the entire game on the bench for the first time all season.

One game after the Gophers stunned the Hoosiers at Williams Arena, Welch was in Minnesota’s starting lineup. It was done by Tubby Smith to have all four of his seniors start their game against Penn State in the final regular-season home game.

Welch made the most of his opportunity, scoring a season-high 10 points and adding seven assists in the Gophers’ 73-44 rout of the Nittany Lions.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t play a single minute just one game earlier.

“It was a little weird,” Welch said of starting after not playing the game before. “But it was a good weird.”

Now, there’s a chance that Welch and former senior Andre Ingram, another Gophers reserve, may stay in the starting lineup Wednesday when Minnesota travels to take on Nebraska. Smith wouldn’t commit to a lineup just yet at the team’s practice Tuesday, but senior Trevor Mbakwe said the Gophers had been using that same senior-laden lineup in practice this week.

“Those guys that started played extremely well together,” Smith said of Saturday’s lineup, which also included senior Rodney Williams and junior Austin Hollins. “They may get the nod tomorrow. I haven’t decided yet.”

Smith said he was impressed by Welch’s performance against Penn State in which the senior had seven assists and zero turnovers. One of those seven assists helped key one of the most memorable plays of the game. Late in the first half, Welch found Williams cutting toward the basket. The senior guard threw up a lob to the senior forward, and Williams hammered it home with his left hand.

Welch’s pass was a bit off the mark, forcing Williams to hang in the air a bit longer. He still was able to snag the ball for the alley-oop, which brought the Gophers crowd to its feet at halftime.

“I got a few texts from that,” Welch said. “I actually missed Rodney on the possession before, so we made eye contact. He knew I was going to throw it, and I knew he was going to throw it down. …

“I told him at halftime, ‘Thanks for making me look good out there,’ like I knew what I was doing.”

Whether or not Welch gets the start Wednesday against Nebraska, the junior college transfer has instilled a bit more confidence in his coach. Prior to Saturday, Welch’s playing time this year was down drastically from what it was last year during his junior season and first year at Minnesota.

A year ago, Welch played 24.7 minutes per game as both a point guard and shooting guard. He averaged 9.5 points and 2.9 assists per game. Those numbers have dropped to 13.2 minutes, 3.3 points and 1.6 assists per game during his senior year. Part of the reason? The emergence of sophomore guard Andre Hollins, who came on strong during the Gophers’ NIT run last year and has since assumed the starting point guard job. That has left Welch to serve in a reserve role nearly all season.

“Me and (Andre) are real close. We’re always helping each other out, pumping each other up,” Welch said. “I just want to contribute, coming off the bench or starting. Either way, I just want to bring something to the team.”

Welch likely expected to get more minutes as a senior after transferring to Minnesota from Yuba Community College. That hasn’t been the way it’s played out, though, for the Elk Grove, Calif., native. But Saturday’s effort in Welch’s first start of the season showed his coach something.

And it might have earned him more minutes on the court.

“He’s been practicing well. He’s been playing with the right attitude,” Smith said. “That’s been one of my concerns with him all year long. His attitude’s gotten better and he’s gotten more playing time.”

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