Gophers win first game without Mbakwe

MINNEAPOLIS -- When forward Trevor Mbakwe tore his ACL on Sunday, Minnesota's hopes of winning its Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against Virginia Tech on Wednesday – or any game, really – seemed to dwindle.

But adversity rarely arrives alone. During the past three seasons of Gophers basketball, it’s come in truckloads.

So it was only fitting that Minnesota’s tenure without Mbakwe – the senior will miss the rest of the season after suffering the injury during a loss to Dayton in the Old Spice Classic final in Orlando, Fla. – commenced with more bad news. Starting center Ralph Sampson III was sidelined with an ankle injury Wednesday.

And yet, a Minnesota starting lineup that featured two freshmen, a 6-foot-7 power forward who hadn’t played the position full-time since high school, a junior-college transfer making his first start for a major Division I program and a sophomore who’d suddenly become one of the team’s key veterans managed to thrive.

The Gophers regrouped and adjusted without Mbakwe and Sampson in the lineup and toppled the Hokies 58-55 in a game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds. The Gophers now have a 5-8 record in the Challenge.

Rodney Williams, the team’s new power forward, scored 14 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Julian Welch, who played junior-college ball last season, manned the starting point-guard slot and recorded 15 points. Redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason finished with 8 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks. Freshman Andre Hollins and sophomore Austin Hollins – no relation – combined for 3 steals.

“It took a full team effort. Once we heard that [Trevor] was going down, we came to practice the next day and we found out that Ralph wouldn’t be playing, either. Everybody just took it upon themselves to get two really good days of practice in. And we came out ready today,” Williams said.

Erick Green scored his last bucket (he had a game-high 25 points) with 23 seconds left, giving the Hokies a 55-54 lead. But a Jarell Eddie foul put Welch on the free-throw line. He hit both shots and the Gophers gained a 1-point edge.

Then, Robert Brown bobbled the inbounds pass and crossed midcourt on Virginia Tech’s next possession, a backcourt violation. It was a crucial turnover. Welch was fouled and went to the line and hit two more free throws as the Gophers stretched their lead to 3 in the closing seconds. Green’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer fell short.

The two-thirds-full Williams Arena vibrated as the Gophers dismissed their circumstances and bounced the Hokies back to Blacksburg, Va., in the latter’s first true road game of the season.

Virginia Tech suffered a loss that could haunt coach Seth Greenberg’s squad down the line. The Hokies shot 37.7 percent from the field. They committed a dozen turnovers. And although the Gophers only hit 2 of 13 3-pointers, Virginia Tech couldn’t contain them inside, where they scored 65 percent of their points.

When the college basketball world learned about Mbakwe’s season-ending injury Monday, the consensus was that Minnesota’s NCAA tournament aspirations were shot. Some even projected a finish at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

Both remain possibilities.

The Gophers might be riding the temporary emotions sometimes spurred by a major setback. So it will take a few games before we know who these Gophers – playing without a potential All-America the rest of the season – really are.

But their quick turnaround during their biggest nonconference matchup suggests that they possess the mental fortitude to reinvent themselves in time to salvage the season.

They’ll never be who they could’ve been with Mbakwe in the lineup. But they’re clearly not ready to wave a white flag on their season. And that’s a good sign for a young team transitioning to its new identity.

“This group of guys, we all stayed together, we got the stops we needed,” Williams said.

Mbakwe delivered a pregame speech that inspired players. Welch wouldn’t reveal the details of Mbakwe’s message. He said its contents were “team confidential.”

What’s not a secret, however, is that the Gophers have more battles in their future. And they’ll have to continue to find ways to win without their best player, who’s just a cheerleader now.