ORLANDO - One Minnesota sports team said goodbye to a longtime closer this week. But another might have found an entire lineup that can finish off games.
For the second time in two games at the Old Spice Classic, a late-game lineup of Julian Welch, Chip Armelin, Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins made big plays down the stretch for the Gophers men's basketball team. And for the second consecutive game, the Gophers erased a big second-half deficit, this time closing on a 27-11 run to defeat Indiana State 76-69 and earn a berth in Sunday's tournament championship game.
Welch and Armelin, in particular, helped rescue the Gophers (6-0). The guards came off the bench to combine for 30 points, including a game-high 17 for Welch. He scored 11 after halftime, adding six rebounds and a 6-for-6 performance from the line -- almost as efficient as those 1-2-3 innings Twins fans grew to love and will miss now that Joe Nathan is gone.
Welch also earned high praise from a man who doesn't dish it out all that easily.
"I thought Julian played an outstanding game," coach Tubby Smith said. "That was the difference in the game."
Minnesota trailed 58-51 with 7:21 when the closing five -- who made big plays on both ends of the court Thursday in a one-point victory over DePaul -- was reunited. By the time Smith made another substitution, the deficit was just 62-61. Shortly thereafter Welch made a fast-break layup to give the Gophers their first lead since late in the first half. A layup by Armelin put the Gophers back ahead for good at 67-66, while Welch and Armelin combined to go 7-for-8 from the line in the final two minutes to seal the game.
"I live for those kinds of moments," said Welch, a junior college transfer. "I just go out there and have fun with it."
The Gophers guards foiled an Indiana State game plan that, for a while, was working to perfection. Sycamores coach Greg Lansing wanted his team to crowd Mbakwe and not let Rodney Williams get to the basket. Those two players and Ralph Sampson III combined for just 13 points, which sounds like a recipe for a Gophers loss.
But it opened up driving lanes and perimeter chances for Gophers guards. Starting point guard Andre Hollins had 16 points in 19 minutes while battling foul trouble for a second consecutive game. He was 4-for-5 from three-point range, leading an 8-for-15 (53.3 percent) performance by the team.
"That's how teams are going to play us. They're going to make us make shots from the outside," said Mbakwe, who had seven of his nine points in the second half. "And we did a really good job knocking down the outside shots."
Mbakwe had a game-high nine rebounds, getting help from Elliott Eliason (six rebounds in 12 minutes) to help the Gophers win the battle on the boards 38-21. They also tightened their perimeter defense in the second half after getting beaten repeatedly by dribble penetration for layups and drive-and-kick three-pointers in the first half.
The Gophers will face Dayton in the title game Sunday on ESPN2. It's a chance, perhaps, for their closers to finish off a tournament championship.
"We get a lot of balance with our bench, and we keep pressure on people and wear people down," Smith said. "It catches up with teams late in the game."