Having a formidable 1-2 offensive punch in Marcus Carr and Liam Robbins is a luxury Richard Pitino knows will only get the Gophers so far the rest of the Big Ten basketball season.
"If we think we're just Marcus and Liam and nobody else," Pitino said, "we're not going to win. We need balance."
The Gophers, who play host to No. 24 Purdue in a rematch Thursday after losing to the Boilermakers 81-62 on Jan. 30, managed to beat Nebraska 79-61 on Monday, when one of their leading scorers had an off night.
It's been Carr or Robbins leading the Gophers in scoring in 16 of 19 games this season. They combined to play only 33 minutes Monday because of foul trouble. And Robbins fouled out with only seven points in 14 minutes, but that didn't sink the ship.
Carr ended up with 13 of his 21 points in the second half despite playing a Gophers career-low 19 minutes. Just as important were the contributions from senior forward Brandon Johnson and freshman guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., who combined for 24 points to help Minnesota end a three-game slide.
"You don't normally have to deal with that with two of your star players," Pitino said about the early foul trouble. "That was very unique and challenging. Credit to guys who stepped up."
Entering this week, the Gophers were 1-10 the past two seasons when Carr scored 12 or fewer points. Carr finished strong Monday, but the Gophers had been 0-5 this season when Robbins scored 12 points or fewer in Big Ten play.
With Robbins on the bench most of the night, Johnson needed to take charge in the starting frontcourt. The 6-8 Western Michigan graduate transfer finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes. It was his first double-double as a Gopher.
"He saved us," Pitino said. "I didn't even sub him out in the second half just because I thought we needed him. I didn't want to have Brandon, Liam, and Marcus all on the bench. Seven offensive rebounds and playing through a [left] finger injury as well. Showed great toughness."
Earlier in the season, Johnson missed a game because of a high ankle sprain, but he's been playing well lately even with lingering injuries. In the past three games, the Chicago native is averaging 11 points and nearly seven rebounds in 35 minutes.
Johnson threw his body around against the Huskers, physically attacking the rim and glass. He also ended a streak of 10 consecutive misses from three-point range by going 2-for-4.
"I just tried to step up and hold things together until [Carr and Robbins] got back into the game," Johnson said. "Actions mean everything. I do talk. I do try to motivate guys in the effort areas. But if I don't do it and I don't show it, nobody is going to follow [my] lead."
Pitino needed Johnson's inside presence as much as he needed Mashburn's offensive lift on the perimeter. They had to pick up the slack when Carr and Robbins picked up three fouls in the first half.
Mashburn has been the backup point guard this season, but he's blossoming as a reliable scoring threat to complement Carr in the backcourt. Junior guards Gabe Kalscheur and Both Gach are the only two players to lead the Gophers in scoring in a game this season besides Robbins and Carr, but neither has been a consistent option.
Meanwhile, Mashburn has scored in double figures the past two games, including 11 points vs. Nebraska.
The Gophers can't go far in the Big Ten without Carr and Robbins being standouts. But secondary options such as Johnson and Mashburn stepping in gives Pitino's team a chance to compete even when their best players struggle.