Gophers' seniors shine in Barn finale

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2013 - 6:12 AM

With Trevor Mbakwe again leading the way, the Gophers simply overwhelmed Penn State.

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The suspense over the Gophers' ability to respond after a big victory was long gone when the student section again took to serenading the one who has directed this two-game change in fates.

"One. More. Year," fans chanted teasingly at their big man who has already had so many of them.

But although he has been at a senior day before, Saturday was truly the last one for Trevor Mbakwe, who didn't let his final appearance at Williams Arena go to waste.

The sixth-year senior racked up 13 points and 13 rebounds, his intensity lighting the way as the Gophers ran over startled Penn State 73-44 in a game coach Tubby Smith had worried would feature an emotional letdown.

"You have a big win like that, you don't want to come back and have an emotional letup on a team that you feel like you should [beat]," Mbakwe said. "We want to turn the season for the better this time."

Instead, the squad that came out flat was the Nittany Lions, who just one day after the Gophers beat No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday had authored perhaps an even bigger upset, beating No. 4 Michigan at home Wednesday to end an 18-game Big Ten losing streak.

The remnants of that game, however, were long gone Saturday, as the Gophers (20-9, 8-8 Big Ten) held Penn State scoreless for the first 11 minutes, 28 seconds and jumped out to a 16-0 lead. The Nittany Lions had come in hot from three-point range, but against the Gophers' suffocating defense, they hit only 21.4 percent of their shots from long range and only 27.1 percent from the floor overall.

With Penn State (9-19, 1-15) struggling all around, Smith was able to keep his senior lineup -- featuring Mbakwe, Rodney Williams (10 points, seven rebounds), Andre Ingram (four points, three rebounds) and Julian Welch (10 points, seven assists) -- in for the first seven minutes without making any switches, and for the majority of the second half, taking out each individually to a standing ovation.

"I think they have kind of united as one, sort of an us-against-the-world type thing," Smith said. "It's a group, that I've said before, I enjoy."

The Gophers didn't lose any steam to the lack of competition, making 50 percent of their own shots, overwhelming Penn State on the boards 46-30 and limiting their turnovers to 10 for the second game in a row. Welch got the team started early with five points in the first two minutes. Ingram had one of his best outings of the season. Mbakwe ignited the team with his aggressiveness. And Williams, being Williams, treated the Barn to one last highlight dunk, snatching an off-target lob out of the air and smacking it lefthanded through the hoop.

"These are two of our better games," Williams said. "For us to catch fire like we have in these last two games, I think this is a real good time for us to do it, going into the tournaments."

By the final minutes, it was a group that simply looked to be having fun out on the court. Mbakwe even attempted a three-pointer (it didn't fall), something his teammates have been goading him to try.

And when fans hit him with one final chant asking him to return, he couldn't help but laugh.

"I guess I'd have to sprain an ankle or something to get another year by the NCAA," Mbakwe said. "It seemed like forever, but it went by so fast and there were a lot of emotions ... I'm going to remember that for a long time."


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