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


“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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