MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—High-flying freshman Rodney Williams is literally giving Minnesota a huge lift.
Williams had three dunks and a pair of 3s, finishing with 14 points in 17 minutes to help the 24th-ranked Gophers pull away from Stephen F. Austin in an 82-42 victory on Monday night.
After coming off the bench as a power forward in the first half, Williams replaced Paul Carter in the starting lineup after the break so he could play the small forward spot where he’s more comfortable.
“He’s a very gifted and graceful athlete,” coach Tubby Smith said. “He does add some quickness and more athleticism to our team.”
Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph led the Gophers (2-0) with 15 points apiece and Damian Johnson contributed 11 second-half points, five assists, five steals and three blocks to lead the romp after a rough start.
Minnesota, which went 11 for 19 from 3-point range, has won its first two games by an average of 39 points after beating two Division II teams in exhibitions by an average of 58 points behind balanced scoring and active defense.
Eddie Williams scored 12 points for the Lumberjacks (0-1), who had eight shots blocked by the lanky, long-armed Gophers.
Rodney Williams is one of those leapers, and his athleticism already has the attention of the home crowd at the 81-year-old arena that’s coincidentally in his last name. The student section started chanting his name shortly after Johnson tossed Williams an alley-oop pass to cap a two-on-one fastbreak with a ferocious dunk for the first points of the second half.
Westbrook followed with a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 12, and Minnesota was off from there. The Gophers used a 27-3 run—including 18-0—bridging the intermission to run away with this one.
“They’re an athletic and fast in their own right, but I think just our skill level wore ‘em down,” Westbrook said.
Smith doesn’t allow players to be interviewed during their first season until they’ve played in a Big Ten game, so Williams can’t speak publicly yet about his potential. His vertical, though, speaks for itself.
“He’s a great asset to our team,” Joseph said, adding: “He brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
After finishing 24-8 and appearing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s 86-year history, SFA lost the heart of last season’s team and suited up eight newcomers for this opener.
The Lumberjacks, predicted to win the Southland Conference’s East Division by league coaches in a preseason poll, have gone hard after junior college transfers under coach Danny Kaspar. They have four players from McLennan Community College in Waco alone, including 5-foot-3 starting point guard Eric Bell.
Kaspar emphasizes tight defense: During the 2007-08 regular season, the Lumberjacks allowed an average of 55 points per game to rank second among all Division I teams.
They had the Gophers off their game, holding a 16-15 lead when 7 minutes were left in the first half, but Westbrook, Williams and Ralph Sampson got Minnesota going before the break after a flat start due mostly to SFA’s defense.
“This is a tough opponent for your first game when you’re bringing in a lot of new people,” Kaspar said. “We’ve just got to put it together again.”
Kaspar turned 55 on Monday.
“It’s not a very good birthday present,” he said.
Eddie Williams said he wasn’t sure how to assess the Lumberjacks at this point.
“We’re very talented,” he said. “It’s just a matter of everybody buying into the system and all of us just jelling together.”
The Gophers are still missing three players to indefinite suspensions while the courts, the school and Smith sort out various off-the-court issues. Junior forward Trevor Mbakwe again sat on the bench in a shirt and tie, but freshman forward Royce White has been told to stay away from the team until his legal situation is cleared up. Senior guard Devron Bostick, punished for an unspecified violation of Smith’s rules, was not present Monday because of he was sick.
Even if White and Mbakwe aren’t allowed to play this season, Williams might be enough to make this touted recruiting class himself. His teammates have clearly enjoyed watching him jump all over the gym so far.
“They see him every day,” Smith said. “He does get them excited. He gets me excited. He’s getting better every day. He’s learning. He’s growing. That helps. It helps that he’s a very fun young man to be around.”