ORLANDO - The Gophers men's basketball team already had plenty to worry about Sunday night in the title game of the Old Spice Classic against Dayton. Then Trevor Mbakwe crumpled to the ground.
Mbakwe hurt his right knee as he battled for a rebound early in the second half and did not return in the 86-70 loss. It was the Gophers' first defeat of the season, but losing Mbakwe for an extended period would easily trump that.
A Gophers spokesperson said Mbakwe will have an MRI on Monday.
Mbakwe had to be helped off the court; he couldn't put any pressure on the leg. He returned briefly to the bench with ice on his knee and a towel often over his head. After he left the bench again, and while the game was still going on, he tweeted: "Lord please get me through this."
After the game, Mbakwe tweeted, "Thanks everyone for your prayers. I really appreciate it the support. Tough times don't last but tough ppl do" and "Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback."
Gophers coach Tubby Smith said the injury "didn't look good." The impact of his loss was evident even if Dayton was already leading 45-36.
"Trevor's a tough guy. When he's down there in pain, you know it's serious," Smith said. "It does take a toll on your guys. ... I'm sure it does because it takes a toll on me."
Players were not available for interviews, but teammate Oto Osenieks said of Mbakwe on Twitter: "Everyone pray for fast and successful recovery."
Mbakwe was expected to be one of the best players in the Big Ten -- if not the country. He averaged a team-high 14.8 points and 10 rebounds per game during a 6-0 start. He had 34 points in the Old Spice Classic and was named to the all-tournament team.
The Gophers struggled against Dayton's excellent shooters and junior point guard Kevin Dillard -- the tournament MVP -- who broke them down repeatedly on the way to 19 points, 10 assists and seven steals. The Flyers made 12 three-pointers to help erase an early 23-12 Gophers lead.
"We haven't defended the three very well all year long," Smith said.
The Gophers were also outrebounded (33-32) for only the second time this season. That's an emerging area of concern with Ralph Sampson III (no points, two rebounds in 10 minutes) hobbling on a bad ankle; Mo Walker still nowhere near returning from last year's knee injury; and Mbakwe's status up in the air. Andre Ingram is an option to start at power forward Wednesday against Virginia Tech if Mbakwe is out.
Aside from what Mbakwe means to the Gophers, it's another potential personal setback for the 6-8 forward. He missed much of his freshman year at Marquette because of a left knee injury. And he redshirted during the 2009-10 season with the Gophers while sitting out with legal troubles. So far this season he has been embracing his role as a team leader.
"Knowing Trevor, whatever it is, whatever he has to do, he'll do it to recover and get back to playing basketball," Smith said.
Just when that is, however, remains to be seen.