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Ex-Robert Morris star Elijah Minnie living up to big potential at Eastern Michigan

| Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017, 7:48 p.m.
Monessen native Elijah Minnie competes for Eastern Michigan men's basketball during an early-season game in 2017.
Andrew Mascharka | EMU Athletics
Monessen native Elijah Minnie competes for Eastern Michigan men's basketball during an early-season game in 2017.

A step up in competition has brought out the best in former Robert Morris basketball player Elijah Minnie.

The Monessen native leads Eastern Michigan (8-3) with 18 points per game and has scored 20 or more six times.

“It's just been all about preparing myself for the season, for every game and to just show my talent,” said Minnie, who ranks fifth in the Mid-American Conference in scoring heading into a matchup with Syracuse at 7 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2.

Minnie, a 6-foot-9 redshirt junior forward, also averages 6.8 rebounds and a team-high 1.7 blocks.

“Elijah has the potential to play at the highest level of basketball,” Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy said. “His length and athleticism, combined with the ability to shoot with range, separates him from most players at his position.”

Minnie has shown these flashes before. As a sophomore at Robert Morris, he averaged 12 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks and scored in double digits 14 times.

During that 2015-16 season — a year after Minnie and the team won the Northeast Conference Tournament and a game in the NCAA Tournament — Minnie totaled a career-best 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including five 3-pointers, in an overtime loss at New Mexico State.

“I knew I could play in a better conference against better players,” Minnie said. “That played an important role in (choosing Eastern Michigan). To get recognized, you've got to choose the right school and the right team. The (Northeast Conference) couldn't help me with that.”

Before this season started, Thompson raved about Minnie, telling The Detroit News “I feel like he's going to shock a lot of people, probably be the best power forward in the (Mid-American Conference). ... ”

This season is enough to seemingly erase the memory of a bad breakup at Robert Morris, where Minnie clashed with coach Andy Toole but still managed to produce some highlight-worthy play before being dismissed from the team after his sophomore year. The Colonials went from a 20-win team in 2014-15 to 22 losses a season later as Minnie's relationship with Toole soured.

“I don't want to downplay my time at Robert Morris, and not even Coach Toole,” Minnie said. “Even though we had our disagreements, he's still a great coach and I feel that we got along despite those disagreements here and there. I got along with all my coaches.”

Before college, Minnie played one season at Monessen and two at Lincoln Park.

“Coming out of high school, my grades weren't the very best,” Minnie said. “I was getting recruited by other schools, but they weren't willing to take a chance because of the grades. Robert Morris was right there all the time, from my freshman year at Monessen all the way up, and I really liked that. I take loyalty seriously. It's why I went there. I would never regret going there.”

Joe Salvino, who coached Minnie at Monessen for one season and has spent years helping children in the Mon Valley with such things as transportation to and from school events, said he hopes Minnie finally has gained the maturity he needs.

“Young people want guidance,” Salvino said. “They may not take it right away, but in their situation, they depend on other people. I may be a disciplinarian, but I try to fit into that role.”

Minnie's brother, Lyndon Henderson, plays on Salvino's current team at Monessen, which is ranked No. 1 in WPIAL Class A by the Tribune-Review.

“Elijah wasn't a great student,” Salvino said, “but I wanted him to stay on the right track. He went to a tutoring program and then straight to practice, so he was here all day long, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. I respected him for that because he knew it would be hard.”

Minnie spent a year at Summit Academy after Salvino said Minnie's mother discovered he sold the family car.

“His mom got upset over that,” Salvino said with a laugh. “I always thought he had that discipline.”

Minnie eventually landed at Lincoln Park, capping his high school career with a PIAA championship.

“We played them in the WPIAL championship that year, and I talked to him before the game,” Salvino said. “He still comes to see me every now and then.”

Salvino has been watching Minnie this season with great interest, and he likes what he's seeing.

“He's playing very well. He has an opportunity to make a career of it,” Salvino said, pausing.

“If! If he's doing the things he needs to do,” he continued with an emphasis on each word.

Minnie said he is more serious than ever.

“I've always wanted to be a great teammate,” Minnie said. “Sometimes, things didn't always work out for the best. But I'm in a pretty good place right now. I want to be a great basketball player, and I want to be a great person. It's how I was raised.”

Dave Mackall is a freelance writer.

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