Mbakwe rises up to lead Gophers past MSU

MINNEAPOLIS -- Following ninth-ranked Minnesota’s 76-63 win over No. 18 Michigan State in Monday’s Big Ten opener for both teams, Trevor Mbakwe sat by his locker and exhaled.

His left hand rested on his left knee, which is stamped with a four-inch scar surgeons left when they repaired an injury he suffered his freshman year at Marquette.

With his right hand, he cradled a large bag of ice that covered his other knee, therapeutic for a young man who tore his right ACL just over a year ago.

But the brace he’d worn all season as he recovered from his most recent setback, one that ruined his 2011-12 season, was gone. Prior to Monday’s win -- Mbakwe finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal -- he persuaded team doctors to let him play without it for the first time this season.

Mbakwe said he was motivated by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 199 yards in a 37-34 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, a year after tearing his ACL.

“I’m moving pretty good; I felt good playing without it. … Adrian Peterson’s inspirational game yesterday, it made me feel pretty good,” he said. “My knee’s feeling great. Just in the two months, I feel a big difference between when the season first started until now. … I’m definitely more aggressive now. I don’t even think about it anymore. It was a big step getting rid of the brace. The docs were kind of hesitant at first, but I told them I believed in it.”

Mbakwe was finally free. So he went after loose balls he’d only thought about fighting for last month. He crashed into Michigan State forward Derrick Nix (5-for-15) and wrestled the big man for rebounds and putbacks. He jumped without fear.

“Any time you can have Trevor out there at full health, you know it’s going to be trouble for the other team,” said Minnesota’s Rodney Williams, who finished with 15 points.

Mbakwe was the emotional guide for a Gophers squad that just cracked the AP poll’s top 10 for the first time since 1997 (officially 1982 because that 1996-97 season was later vacated).

He urged the crowd to cheer after Michigan State launched an 11-0 run that turned a seven-point Minnesota advantage into a four-point deficit midway through the second half. He pounded on his chest. He taunted Spartans with smiles and screams. He encouraged a young Minnesota squad with his spirit.

“He’s coming back to the old Trevor we know,” said UM sophomore Joe Coleman, who had eight points, three assists and three steals.

Minnesota held a 17-16 lead with 11:54 remaining in the first half, but a 20-9 run gave the Gophers a 37-25 lead with 4:53 left in the half.

Then Big Ten play began.

Tubby Smith had shown his team video of old Mike Tyson fights prior to Monday’s game. It set the tone for the battle the Gophers and Spartans staged after halftime.

In the past, many Minnesota teams coached by Smith had failed to respond when pressured by Michigan State. But Mbakwe helped this young squad keep its poise after MSU closed the gap to 39-38 by halftime, a comeback anchored by a 10-0 rally. The two teams traded runs -- and momentum -- in the second half until the Gophers held a 64-63 lead with 3:50 to go.

Andre Hollins (22 points, six assists) darted to the left side of the court and hit a 12-foot off-balance jump shot to extend Minnesota’s lead with 2:50 to play. That clutch play kicked off a 12-0 game-sealing run for Minnesota, which shot 55.6 percent from the field.

The Gophers, who earned Smith’s first regular-season win over the Spartans as Minnesota’s head coach, also forced 14 turnovers against an MSU squad that missed 8 of 10 free throws.

Bottom line: Minnesota was the tougher team. When asked about overall effort, the Spartans talked about Mbakwe’s impact more than Hollins’.

“He caused us a whole lot of problems, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end as well,” said Michigan State’s Keith Appling, who led his team with 15 points. “The past films we watched, he hasn’t been this active.”

Mbakwe had been so cautious with his right knee that he has come off the bench most of the season. But he recently returned to the team’s starting rotation.

Physical damage has affected Mbakwe throughout his six years -- he missed 2009-10 because of legal issues after transferring from a junior college, and he received a medical redshirt after missing most of last year with the knee injury.

But other wounds, some self-inflicted, have threatened his career too.

An offseason arrest for drunken driving was one of a handful of legal incidents the former all-Big Ten forward has had to address in his time as a college basketball player.

Mbakwe admitted that his most recent arrest and knee injury made it difficult to envision a performance comparable to Monday’s as he pondered the 2012-13 campaign throughout the offseason.

He didn’t know if the knee would allow him to do the things that led many to believe he was an NBA prospect last season. And he wasn’t sure if the legal system would offer him another chance.

“A couple months ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be playing here,” he said. “I didn’t know what my future was going to be. It’s been an emotional roller coaster, these last few years. I’m just happy. I couldn’t ask for a better win.”