LOS ANGELES - In the midst of rolling through success after success this season, the Gophers handed the spotlight to their coach on Saturday.
But while Tubby Smith's 500th victory is a tribute to a long and successful career for himself, it only seems fitting that the milestone came with what has been dubbed his most talented team since taking over at Minnesota in 2007.
The Gophers didn't disappoint their skipper, again showing the depth and variety of talent that has taken them to No. 14 in the nation. While Minnesota got a strong performance from Rodney Williams, eight different players scored as the Gophers overcame USC 71-57 at Galen Center.
"You're so in the moment and it's a journey, so you don't even look at it," Smith said. "Somebody tells me, and that's when I recognize it's 500. But it's good to be with this group, to be a part of it because I think they're a great group of kids, a great group to coach. There's always a challenge with any group, but this group is a very committed group. They have good chemistry. So it's fun to coach."
The Gophers created separation early and held off a USC push in the second half, fueled by an excellent 20 minutes from Omar Oraby, who battled in the paint and finished with 15 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots.
Behind Oraby's 7-for-9 shooting from the field, USC closed the gap to nine at 63-54 with 3:46 left. But the Gophers hit four free throws and got baskets from Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman to finish strong.
Williams led the Gophers (10-1) with 13 points and 11 rebounds (a season high and his first double-double of the year), but six others had six points or more for Minnesota, including Trevor Mbakwe, who added 10 off the bench. Andre Hollins finished 14 points and five rebounds.
"I didn't even know I had a double-double," Williams said. "Finally! It definitely felt good to come out here and see something go through the basket. Last game was definitely a tough one for me."
Smith has been through ups and downs in Minnesota -- bringing in some solid players (locally and out of state), getting two NCAA tournament bids and taking a depleted Gophers squad to the brink of the NIT championships a year ago.
But during that time, Smith has failed to win an NCAA tournament game and has been criticized for a flurry of transfers and for missing out on several program-changing recruits. Ultimately, the university has been patient and dished out a three-year contract extension this summer.
The Gophers leapt out to a 20-8 lead in the first eight minutes as the Trojans struggled to hit their shots with Minnesota defenders in the their faces. Meanwhile, the Gophers continued a positive shooting trend from a game ago (against South Dakota State), scoring in a variety of ways and getting three three-point shots from three different players in the first nine minutes.
Perhaps most positively, the Gophers didn't turn over the ball at all through the first 9:37. The Gophers finished with 15 turnovers.
But after padding their advantage to 27-12, the Gophers watched USC adjust and go on a 9-3 run. Minnesota got a bit sloppy, recording five miscues in just over five minutes as they struggled against the home team's 2-3 defensive zone, before they ultimately regrouped to get their coach to his milestone victory.
"They're a big team," Mbakwe said. "We're going to see a lot of that in the Big Ten, starting with Michigan State. They have some big guys and that's going to be big for us, kind of getting us used to that [in] rugged Big Ten games."