We’ve all been waiting for it: the point when Trevor Mbakwe dominates a game and shows us that he’s still capable of being, well, Mbakwe.
And that came Saturday, in the Gophers’ second-most important game of the year. Mbakwe – who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds in 24 minutes -- was huge in pushing Minnesota past Stanford on the final day of play in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and that allowed the Gophers to count the trip a major victory.
“I think every game I can kind of tell a difference, I’m able to do more and more,” he said after. “Obviously I want to rush back to being as aggressive and as explosive as I used to be, but I just have to be smart in the way I play and just take it game by game.”
Said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins: “He was impressive. I thought he had a presence on the floor. He rebounded well, he scored around the basket. I think he’s going to give them the added dimension they’ve were missing last year.”
That’s certainly what the Gophers are hoping. After losing to Duke in the opening round of the tournament, it became clear that this squad might need more offensive production to hang with truly elite teams.
They got that from Andre Hollins in a big way on Friday, and on Saturday, it was Mbakwe’s turn to go off.
With the Gophers down by four 5.5 minutes in, Mbakwe entered the game and quickly grabbed a tough rebound and hit a jumper. Then, with Minnesota trailing 31-27, the sixth-year senior converted a layup and then after Austin Hollins and Mo Walker combined for 1-for-4 free throw shooting, another to tie the game at 32 going into the half.
In the second, Mbakwe was just as clutch down the stretch, recording eight points in the final five minutes of the game. Mbakwe went 5-for-6 from the line overall.
“That’s just the way I have to play to help this team,” he said. “Make plays on defense and play with energy. I think that’s one of the gotten me to where I am right now in my career and that’s what coach expects of me. I’ve just got to play hard and all times and take advantage of opportunities when I’m out there.”
Getting a game like that from Mbakwe after Rodney Williams had gotten himself into foul trouble was huge. And many Gophers fans are hoping that will help convince coach Tubby Smith to continue to give the big man big minutes – and maybe even get a starting spot. Smith has said he sees “no reason” to insert Mbakwe in the starting lineup considering the chemistry with his current five, but heading into Florida State could be the time to tinker.
“He’s showing a lot of stamina,” Smith said. “Trevor’s got great energy. He always plays with energy and toughness.
“I’ve been impressed with how he’s gotten better. Just the shooting percentages, his free throw shooting, things he’s done extremely well in this tournament. That’s been very helpful, and it’s helped us win these two games.”