Short-handed Gophers receive boost from frontcourt duo

MINNEAPOLIS — No Joey King, no Mo Walker, no problem for
the short-handed Gophers men’s basketball team.

Playing with a small lineup for most of the night, Minnesota
easily dispensed of visiting Wofford. Thanks to big contributions from big men
Oto Osenieks and Elliott Eliason, the Gophers handed the Terriers a 79-57 loss
to improve to 5-0 in the Richard Pitino Era.

King, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, did not play Thursday after
suffering an injury Tuesday against Coastal Carolina. And Walker, a 6-foot-10
center, is still suspended for violating team rules, a suspension that ends
after Minnesota’s game on Monday against Syracuse. That meant the 6-foot-8
Osenieks and the 6-foot-11 Eliason had to log plenty of minutes as the Gophers’
two big men.

The duo combined for 25 points, 16 rebounds and eight
blocks, along with 51 total minutes.

“Oto and Elliott were tremendous,” Pitino said after the
win. “(Eliason) continues to grow, continues to get better. And you’re playing
without two guys who play significant minutes. And then Oto was very good
offensively. I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now.”

Osenieks set a new career high with 14 points, besting his
previous career high of 13 — a mark he set on Tuesday against Coastal
Carolina. Twelve of Osenieks’ 14 points came in the first half, but he ran into
foul trouble and played just five minutes after halftime.

That opened the door for Eliason to have a big second half.
The junior from Chadron, Neb., finished three blocks shy of a triple double
after scoring 11 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and swatting seven shots.

Given that none of Wofford’s starters were taller than
6-foot-8, Eliason figured he might be able to do some damage against a smaller
Terriers lineup. He did just that with a career-high seven blocks.

“It’s my job to protect the rim off the break. That’s what I
did,” Eliason. “It just happened to end up that way.”

As good as Eliason was defensively, he also helped carry
Minnesota offensively. After the Gophers jumped out to a big lead early,
Eliason converted a three-point play to put Minnesota up 32-11 midway through
the first half. He later took a pass in the post from Maverick Ahanmisi and
scored to make it a 45-24 Gophers lead.

While Minnesota is looking forward to getting King and
Walker back, the Gophers were able to survive — and thrive — with a smaller
lineup Thursday, often playing with four guards on the court.

“It was a good experience for me,” said Osenieks, who played
center for the first time in his Gophers career. “We had to adjust, but Joey’s
going to be back soon I think. … Our job when we’re small is to rebound and run
fast, so we did our job rebounding and we also executed the fast break.”

Pitino said after the game that he hopes King will be back
for Monday’s game against Syracuse, although the team will reevaluate things on
Saturday when they practice. King was knocked out of Tuesday’s game when he
fractured his jaw in a collision with teammate Andre Hollins. He watched
Thursday’s game in street clothes on the bench.

The sophomore transfer from Drake scored 20 points in his
Gophers debut against Lehigh and had 10 points and seven rebounds in a win
against Richmond last week. When King does return, as well as Walker, Minnesota
should have much more depth in the frontcourt than it did on Thursday night.

“To come back (with) one day of prep, to come with that type
of defensive intensity was really good, and to do it without Joey King was very
hard,” Pitino said. “It was a hard game to coach in that sense.”

With a shortened bench, a smaller lineup and a trip to Maui
on the horizon, the Gophers could have easily sleepwalked through Thursday’s
game. But Minnesota kept the foot on the gas all game and never let the
Terriers close the gap.

Credit Osenieks, Eliason and senior Austin Hollins — who
scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds while playing out of
position at power forward — for maintaining the intensity from start to
finish.

“It’s funny, I really believe it’s harder to play these
games than it is at Richmond or Syracuse in Maui. We don’t have to get them
excited for those games,” Pitino said. “That was a tough game for me to coach
because I kept looking at the bench, I’m like, ‘Well, what position is he going
to play? What’s he going to do?’ Because normally you have an idea of your
rotation. So then your backup four-man now becomes your backup five-man. So we
had to figure out a couple different things. It was a bit of a challenge. I’m
happy we got through it.”

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