MINNEAPOLIS For most of the non-conference season, the Gophers' biggest contribution off the bench came from senior forward Trevor Mbakwe. But Saturday against Lafayette, Mbakwe was finally in the starting lineup for the first time this season.Despite that, Minnesota's bench still made a big impact during the Gophers' 75-50 win over the Leopards at Williams Arena. The reserves combined to score 42 points and played most of the second half, giving the starters some rest heading into the Big Ten opener on Dec. 31.The depth the Gophers have exhibited throughout the non-conference schedule was evident yet again Saturday, and it's something that will be key for Minnesota when it enters the rigors of conference play."It can be beneficial to you if they're productive," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of his team's deep bench. "Our strength is our depth, so we have to play to our strength."In his first start of the season, Mbakwe played just 17 minutes and only three minutes in the second half. He suffered a cut above his right eye and went to the locker room, where he received five stitches. Mbakwe didn't return to the game and finished with five points and four rebounds.Having Mbakwe in the starting lineup meant Elliott Eliason did not start. In fact, he didn't play all game. Smith said after the game that it was simply a coach's decision not to play Eliason, and he wouldn't elaborate any more on the matter.Now that Mbakwe is no longer a reserve for the Gophers, Minnesota's bench has a different look. Like he said earlier in the season, Mbakwe insisted after Saturday's win that it doesn't matter to him if he starts or comes off the bench."I'm happy a lot of guys were able to step up and play big minutes," Mbakwe said. "We're going to need those guys when the Big Ten gets here."Leading all Gophers reserves in scoring Saturday was sophomore forward Oto Osenieks, who matched a career high with 10 points including seven in the first half to help spark the Gophers to a 37-22 halftime lead. Osenieks hit one of Minnesota's three 3-pointers in the first half and added to his total on a 3-point play in the second half, the result of a made basket and resulting foul after he got a circus shot in traffic to fall.Prior to Saturday, Osenieks' season high was nine points in a win over North Florida. His previous 10-point game came against Ohio State last season. Saturday's double-digit scoring effort helped carry the load on offense against the Leopards."That's why we're such a good team is because we have a long bench," Osenieks said. "Anybody can come in and step up and do even better than the (starters)."Freshman guard Wally Ellenson made his college debut last game against North Dakota State, scoring just one point. Saturday, he got his first field goal as a Gopher when he threw down a dunk on a missed shot by Osenieks.Later, Ellenson connected for his first 3-pointer, something Minnesota is hoping to see plenty more of from the freshman from Rice Lake, Wis."I thought Wally did some spectacular (things)," Smith said. "He's starting to get comfortable. Those are the things we know he's capable of doing. As he improves, as he continues to play with confidence, he'll see more playing time."Minnesota also got strong play off the bench from senior forward Andre Ingram, who had six points, six rebounds and four steals in 19 minutes. It was the most time Ingram has seen on the court so far this season, and he took advantage of it.Four of Ingram's six points came off putback dunks and all six of his rebounds came on the offensive glass. He also drew a charge on the defensive end following the first of his two dunks."Andre Ingram, I can't say enough about how well he's playing," Smith said. "I really like his maturity and his experience."Things will change for Minnesota on New Year's Eve when Smith's team opens Big Ten play with a home game against Michigan State. The Gophers will need their reserves to step up and contribute like they did Saturday in order to compete with some of the conference's best teams.Thanks to its deep bench, though, Minnesota is one of those teams.
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