Gophers beat Hokies without Mbakwe

Published 9:13am Thursday, December 1, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — Rodney Williams knows most observers counted Minnesota out as soon as the news hit that Trevor Mbakwe was out for the season with a knee injury.

Virginia Tech found out awfully quickly that the Golden Gophers aren’t going to back down, even though their bruising big man isn’t there to throw his weight around anymore.

Williams had 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks while filling in at power forward for Mbakwe, lifting Minnesota to a 58-55 victory over Virginia Tech on Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Julian Welch scored 15 points and hit two free throws with 18.9 seconds to go that gave the Gophers the lead for good.

Elliott Eliason added eight points, seven rebounds and two blocks for the Gophers (7-1), who played their first game after Mbakwe was lost for the season with a right knee injury.

“A gallant effort by all of our kids,” said coach Tubby Smith, whose team was also missing senior center Ralph Sampson III with a sprained left ankle. “I couldn’t be prouder of how they competed.”

Erick Green scored 25 points for the Hokies (5-2) but was hampered in the final 19 seconds after falling off Williams Arena’s raised floor and landing on his right shoulder. He returned, and his 3-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out.

Robert Brown added 13 points and Victor Davila scored 10 and grabbed seven boards for Virginia Tech, which led 55-54 after Green scored on a put-back with 25 seconds to go. But he spilled off the court on the other end, and Welch hit all four of his free throws in the final 19 seconds to clinch the victory for Minnesota.

The gimpy shoulder caused coach Seth Greenberg to call an inbounds play to Brown rather than Green, and the ball slipped into the backcourt for a turnover that cost the Hokies a chance to take the lead.

“We’ve got to get the ball inbounds to at least have a chance to win the game,” Greenberg said. “I wasn’t sure if Erick was healthy enough to get the ball in his hands. So we went with a play to drive it and kick it and try to get the ball to the basket, but you have to get the ball inbounds first.”

Even without Mbakwe and Sampson, Minnesota outscored the Hokies 38-16 in the paint.

“It’s been a tough week for us with the injury to Trevor,” Smith said. “But I thought our kids really stepped up tonight and grew up a lot.”

The Gophers lost Mbakwe to a torn ACL in a loss to Dayton on Sunday, leaving them without their top scorer, rebounder and captain, the player who was carrying this young team on both ends of the floor.

“I knew I was going to have to step up on the boards,” said Williams, who was averaging just 3.7 rebounds coming into the night. “We lost probably the best rebounder in the nation, so I just knew in order for us to get the ‘W’ tonight I was going to have to hit the boards real hard.”

Smith has spent the last few days trying to keep his players from putting too much pressure on themselves individually to fill the enormous void left by Mbakwe, but Eliason was visibly flustered Tuesday as he spoke about needing to raise his level of play.

He came out determined in the early going Wednesday night, scoring on two put-backs, pulling down five rebounds and blocking a shot in the first 11 minutes. The Gophers got out to a 10-2 lead, capitalizing on some turnovers from the Hokies and energizing a Williams Arena crowd that was sullen before tipoff.

Virginia Tech weathered the early charge, started knocking down some 3-pointers and gradually got back into the game. Brown hit two 3s, and the Hokies finished the half on a 15-5 run to take a 28-26 lead at the break.

“We started very slow, and we can’t have that against a good team like Minnesota,” Green said. “You just can’t do it.”

The Hokies have had their share of injury problems as well. Senior forward JT Thompson tore the ACL in his right knee on Nov. 2 and will miss the entire season after missing all of last year with a torn ACL in his left knee. They are also waiting for Marquis Rankin to return from knee surgery.

“I just didn’t think we were as tough as we needed to be,” Greenberg said. “I thought they were a little bit tougher than us, and they got the 50-50 ball.”