MINNEAPOLIS (AP) —When Minnesota replaced coach Tubby Smith with Richard Pitino and this fast-paced style, Elliott Eliason wasn’t immediately sure how he would fit.
Well, the 6-foot-11 junior has kept up just fine with the running-and-gunning Gophers, with even more playing time than he expected.
Eliason had 11 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks to lead Minnesota to an easy 79-57 victory over Wofford on Thursday.
“I didn’t know I was in that good of shape,” said Eliason, who has averaged nearly 30 minutes per game.
Austin Hollins led the Gophers (5-0) with 18 points, and he grabbed eight rebounds, too. Oto Osenieks had a career-high 14 points, and Deandre Mathieu added 10 points. Making well-timed cuts and drives to the basket, the Gophers were as crisp on offense as they’ve been all season with give-and-go passes working to near-perfection. They had 20 assists on 30 baskets and just eight turnovers.
With backup Mo Walker still suspended for a university policy violation and reserve power forward Joey King sitting this one out because of a broken jaw, Eliason and Osenieks were the only frontcourt regulars left.
“Elliott really picked up their slack and really helped us out tonight. He played with a lot of energy and confidence,” Hollins said.
With Wofford’s tallest starter, Lee Skinner, at 6-foot-6, Eliason’s long arms and quick anticipation did a lot of damage. He went 5 for 8 from the field, too.
This was a good way for the Gophers to build some momentum for the Maui Invitational next week, with a game against ninth-ranked Syracuse set for Monday. They will face either Arkansas or California after that, and No. 20 Baylor and No. 13 Gonzaga are in the other half of the eight-team bracket.
With a late-arriving, non-conference-game crowd, Pitino challenged the Gophers to self-motivate and not look ahead to the challenging matchup with Syracuse.
“That’s a little more than a test, man. That’s a great team, year in and year out. It’s always good to be able to measure yourself against someone like that,” Eliason said.
The Gophers scored the first 13 points of the game, built a 24-2 lead and never let the Terriers come any closer than 17 points after that. Skinner led the Terriers (1-3) with 18 points and seven rebounds, and Spencer Collins and Eric Garcia each added 10 points.
“The barrage of shots that went down for them in the first half was discouraging,” Wofford coach Mike Young said. “We’ve got to do a better job of defending. I’ve got the makings of a really good team, and I didn’t think that we showed that as consistently as I would like.”
The Gophers moved the ball around so much that Andre Hollins, the Big Ten’s leading scorer entering the night, only took two shots in the first half. He made them count: swishing a 3-pointer in the opening minutes and a turnaround jumper from the top of the key right before the buzzer sounded.
Hollins finished with seven points and four assists.
Osenieks has been one of the early success stories for the Gophers in the transition from Smith to Pitino. The lanky 6-foot-8 junior, a native of Latvia, was buried on the bench last season and shot just 29.7 percent from the floor, including 2 for 26 from 3-point range. He rarely looked confident with the ball in his hands.
Now, moved up to power forward on a team thin in the frontcourt, Osenieks has rediscovered his outside shooting touch, been unafraid to drive to the basket and become one of the team’s best rebounders with this opportunity to be a starter.
“I just love the confidence that he’s playing with right now,” Pitino said. “I keep telling him, ‘Don’t worry about anything but just playing aggressively.’ He’s showing that.”
Sophomore C.J. Neumann had six points for the Terriers, playing a few miles away from his high school, Cretin-Derham Hall. The Terriers have built a competitive program under Young, who’s in his 12th season at the Spartanburg, S.C., school. Behind Noah Dahlman, a native of tiny Braham, Minn., they made the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011.
The Terriers fell to 19-14 and 13-19 the last two years, but they brought back all five starters this season. They were picked to finish fifth and sixth in the media and coaches’ preseason polls for the 11-team Southern Conference.
“This sets the tone with how mentally prepared and tough we have to be when things aren’t going our way,” Skinner said. “A game like this will help us out down the road.”
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