Nati Harnik, Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. — Bench players are fast becoming stars for the Minnesota Gophers.
Reserve guard Chip Armelin scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half and the Gophers took advantage of Nebraska's poor shooting to pull away for a 69-61 victory on Sunday.
The Gophers' bench outscored the Cornhuskers' backups 40-5 two games after outscoring Illinois' 39-9.
"It's a team effort all the way around," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "I don't look at how guys come off the bench. They could be someone else's starter. ... Coaches get a little superstitious so they keep that starting lineup together."
A couple other reserves ignited the decisive 9-0 burst in the middle of the second half. Maverick Ahanmisi converted a three-point play and Andre Hollins made a 3-pointer that helped put Minnesota (17-7, 5-6 Big Ten) up 48-39 with 7:22 left.
"Everybody is doing their part," Armelin said. "That's a good thing. That's how it always should be every game."
The win, which followed last week's road loss at Iowa, was crucial for a team that harbors NCAA tournament hopes. Minnesota's next two games are at home against Top 25 opponents, No. 19 Wisconsin on Thursday and No. 3 Ohio State on Feb. 14.
"It's crunch time in the season," Smith said. "If you expect to compete for anything you have to be playing well this time of year. This is a good start to the next game, the next practice. We played better than we did the other day. If we can keep building on this, most things will take care of themselves."
Nebraska (11-11, 3-8) led 33-32 at halftime, but went 2 for 16 to start the second half and had a stretch of 6½ minutes without a field goal.
Toney McCray's 3 ended Nebraska's field-goal drought and made it a six-point game. But the Gophers extended their lead to double digits when Armelin threaded an underhand pass along the baseline to Ahanmisi for a layup.
Nebraska, out of timeouts the last 3:52, got no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Bo Spencer had 18 points, Toney McCray 15 and Brandon Richardson 10 for the Huskers. Nebraska played without center Jorge Brian Diaz, who sat the bench in warm-ups because of chronic soreness in his feet.
"He's hurting. I would say that it's going to be a long shot to see him play the rest of the year," Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. "His feet are just killing him. He can't play; he can't walk. You can't compete at this level with your feet killing you. They haven't gotten any better; they've gotten worse."
The Gophers shot 67 percent in the second half and 54 percent for the game and held a 31-24 rebounding advantage.
The Huskers, who shot 59 percent the first half, made only 31 percent from the floor in the second half and 44 percent for the game.
The Gophers picked up the tempo in the second half, beating the Huskers in transition after rebounding Nebraska's many misses.
"We made a conscious effort to run more and run harder," Smith said. "That's one thing we told them (at half). No one played more than 12 minutes the first half and no one had foul trouble, so let's push ball more in the open court. That hurt us (in a loss) at Iowa. We wanted to go back to playing that up-tempo running style."
Julian Welch was the only starter in double figures, with 10 points. Joe Coleman was held scoreless but did have seven rebounds in 19 minutes.
"It's always nice when your starters aren't having such a good game that you have five that can come off the bench and pick us up," said starting forward Rodney Williams, who had eight points. "We know what we've got. We're happy guys are showing everybody else what they've got."
A flurry of action in the last minute of the first half appeared to give Nebraska some momentum heading to the locker room.
Richardson swiped the ball from Coleman to start a fast break Spencer helped finish by lofting a high pass that Caleb Walker flushed for a dunk to tie it at 30 with 16 seconds left.
After a timeout, Minnesota's Oto Osenieks stormed to the basket for a dunk. Nebraska rushed the ball up-court, and Walker hit a 3-pointer from the wing for a one-point lead.
The Huskers led by eight points in the middle of the half, but the Gophers hit three straight 3s for a 9-0 run that tightened things up.
"I was very disappointed in our toughness to grind things out today on offense and defense," Sadler said. "I didn't think we had the mindset you have to have in league play to know that it's going to be a tough ballgame. Things are not going to be easy for you. And when things get tough, that's when you have to start grinding."
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