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Tenacity remains a challenge for Minnesota's Walker

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Mo Walker has plenty of discipline. He dropped about 60 pounds after Richard Pitino was hired to make sure he could keep up with Minnesota coach's faster style.

The 6-foot-10 center's biggest challenge these days revolves around mental toughness. This is more of a tenacity issue, a guy with a low-key personality trying to maintain a consistent amount of grit required to be a productive defender and rebounder in the Big Ten.

The low-post scoring ability, featuring a feathery-soft hook shot, has already been proven. For this late-blooming senior, though, the attacking attitude must be renewed every game.

''Mo understands what it takes to compete at this level, so I say to him all the time, `Why do we need to go down that road of yelling at you? We don't. You know you've got to play tough,''' Pitino said. ''So sometimes it's lighting a fire under him a little bit, and other times he just needs to get punched first to react a little bit. So we need that from him.''

They had plenty of it on Saturday, when the Gophers (13-8, 2-6 Big Ten) muscled and hustled their way past Illinois in the second half for a 79-71 victory. Walker scored 12 points, grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds and even had three steals.

''We talked at halftime and we just said, `You've got to have more pride than that. You're a better player than that,''' Pitino said.

Walker literally played up to Pitino's challenge to the team to return to the locker room bruised and bloodied. Walker was hit near his eye during the game, a wound that later needed four stitches.

''I made a conscious effort to just rebound better in the second half. He told me, `Hit your man and pursue the ball,' so that's what I did,'' said Walker, who was coming off a rough game at Nebraska in which he went 2 for 8 from the field for four points plus four fouls and three turnovers.

The Gophers play at Penn State on Wednesday.

''He's still not there. Guys still reach over him in the post when he's posting up or slap the ball out of his hands,'' Pitino said. ''A little bit of that is just who he is, but that improvement, sure, we can get that.''

The native of Toronto, a fifth-year player who turned 23 two months ago, is averaging more than 22 minutes per game. His weight this season was listed at 255 pounds.

''I don't think it's worn on me, but it is an adjustment starting and getting more minutes. Teams are going to game plan for me a lot more,'' Walker said before the team departed on Tuesday.

This weekend, back home at Williams Arena, he'll have an opportunity to avenge that poor performance in a rematch against Nebraska.

''A little bit of it is fighting through that adversity a little bit better and just continuing to understand that guys are going to slap down at you, guys are going to try to go over your back,'' Pitino said, ''and you've just got to be physically stronger and tougher.''