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Central Michigan forward Olivier Mbaigoto, right, has his shot blocked by Minnesota guard Julian Welch (0) during the first half in an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday.

Paul Battaglia, Associated Press

GOPHERS 76, CENTRAL MICHIGAN 56

Up next: 7 p.m. Dec. 22 vs. North Dakota State • Williams Arena • No TV (1500ESPN)

U's Welch growing into larger role

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO
  • Star Tribune
  • December 15, 2011 - 5:53 PM

When Gophers coach Tubby Smith recruited Julian Welch, he knew he was nabbing a player capable of being a leader. And if he had the foresight to know top player Trevor Mbakwe would be lost for the season in December because of a torn ACL, he probably would have been even more aggressive in going after the guard.

But while Welch led the team intangibly and in scoring during Tuesday's 76-56 victory over Central Michigan, the Gophers (11-1) are continuing to show they are more than a one-man band.

With Mbakwe out and Ralph Sampson III still recovering from a tweaked ankle, Welch stepped up. But he is simply one of the many who have stepped up and made a difference. Welch has become an emotional leader for a squad of players -- seven of whom scored at least five points Tuesday -- who are suddenly playing with a new balance.

"That's what I want," coach Tubby Smith said. "I'd much rather have it this way than just one guy. You're not going to win a whole lot of games with just one guy. You've got a balanced approach. That's the only way I've ever coached. That's the only way I know how to coach."

Tuesday, he was thankful once again for that. The Gophers won by 20 but they did it largely without Sampson, who was somewhat hobbled by cramping in his calf, and Rodney Williams, who had eight rebounds but was limited offensively by the Chippewas' defense.

Instead, the Gophers' four double-digit efforts came from junior college-transfer Welch, Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi and freshman Joe Coleman, who has had three consecutive solid outings off the bench.

With Big Ten play just one game away, the Gophers are moving the ball better, shooting the ball better as a whole and playing more team-oriented ball.

"Trevor was a important part of us, and so we were gearing to get the ball inside and use his physicality," Smith said. "But now it's not there. So we've got to do it a different way now, we're going to have to do it by committee and by team. And the only way we're going to be able to compete is to play that way."

Welch has been a major part of spurring that production.

After struggling to break free in the first half, Welch scored eight of his team-high 15 points in four minutes to help the Gophers to a 12-point lead, and capped the run with an Mbakwe-like vein-bulging scream. When the Chippewas' Trey Zeigler -- who finished with a team-high 19 points -- started heating up in the second, Welch was key in pacing the Gophers.

"I think he's taken the role well," Austin Hollins said of Welch. "He's stepped up and I think he's been a leader -- I know he's a transfer but he's still an upperclassman being a junior, so he took on that leadership role and we just follow behind as a team."

And, apparently follow suit. Ahanmisi hit back-to-back threes in the second half. Chip Armelin contributed seven points in a span of just three minutes. Coleman looked as confident as ever, sinking a 20-footer and making three of his four shots from the free-throw line.

"Coach is playing a deep bench and so guys have got to be ready to play," Ahanmisi said. "And when they play hard things are going to work well for the team."

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