There have been plenty of questions about Ralph Sampson. Will he be the leader the team wants him to be? Is he capable of being the go-to guy the Gophers desperately need?
If the question in the Gophers' Big Ten opener Tuesday was “Can Sampson put the team on his back under pressure?” the answer was, "Yes.”
While some fans might fixate on Sampson's turnover in the second overtime -- a giveaway that led to a dunk and certainly changed momentum as Illinois started to pull away -- the overall effort from the senior big man has to be considered encouraging.
With just under three minutes to play in regulation, Sampson was the major factor in the Gophers pulling even with the Illini and he put them in place to win.
After a dismal first half in which he want 1-for-7 from the field, Sampson scored 18 of his 22 points after the break and marched the team back into the game with six consecutive points to give the Gophers the 64-62 lead.
“I think Ralph had a couple easy opportunities, he just wasn’t finishing,” coach Tubby Smith said of Sampson's first-half struggles. “He had good looks. He just needed to slow down, take his time, take the ball. And then he did later on, he started taking his time. Because they weren’t really double-teaming him, I just needed him to be more aggressive in attacking the basket and that’s what he did.”
Some of the heat on Sampson comes because he sometimes doesn’t play like a big man. And at times, on Thursday, he still didn’t play like a big man. He hit some shots from well outside the paint – including one that was just in front of the three-point line in double overtime. He showed off the passing skills that come in handy for a center, finishing with three assists to go with his team-high nine rebounds.
But this time, he gave the Gophers more – he gave them a legitimate inside presence, a perfect effort from the line and a clutch performance down the stretch. For the most part, he played like a go-to guy and senior leader.