A year ago, the sight of Trevor Mbakwe shooting free throws late in a close game might have made fans hide behind their popcorn boxes. In fact, standing on the line at key moments made Mbakwe a little uneasy, too.
But Thursday, on a night full of turnovers, miscommunication and generally sloppy play, Mbakwe's stellar free-throw performance -- sinking 16 of 18 -- was one of the few gems in a 67-57 Gophers victory over Fairfield.
"It's a good feeling," said Mbakwe, who had the first 20-point, 10-rebound game of his college career. "I think it's one of the things down the stretch last year, where I was kind of uncomfortable I guess. I might not have been as aggressive ... because depending on how the game might have been, I might have missed five or six free throws."
After making 62.9 percent of his free throws last season (127 of 202), Mbakwe dedicated a lot of offseason focus to his shooting. He tinkered with his mechanics, putting a greater arc on his shot. When the first practices started this fall, the senior forward would linger on the court after each one, rooted to the line until he made 50 sink.
Mbakwe went only 14-for-22 at the line in the Gophers' first two games, but his hard work paid off Thursday. His 16 made free throws were one short of the Gophers record, set by Larry Mikan in January 1969. He was two attempts short of Mikan and Tony Jaros' school record of 20.
And with the rest of their game slumping, the Gophers (3-0) needed that free-throw success Thursday.
Both teams got off to an imperfect start, to say the least. There were 22 combined turnovers by the end of the first half, as bad passes and missed shots marked the early play. The Gophers -- who finished with 23 turnovers -- got lucky when Fairfield's shooters went sour, missing nine of 10 three-point attempts in the first half, many on open looks.
But the Gophers' third victory of the young season was clinched no easier -- and certainly no prettier -- than either of their first two games, or either exhibition, all of which came against lesser opponents at Williams Arena. With Fairfield forward Rakim Saunders harassing in the paint and the Stags defense pressing more than the Gophers had seen this season, the home team looked lost at times.
All three point guards got significant time and looked to stroke the competition at that position. The Gophers shot 40 percent from the floor in the first half as they ran into Sanders down low and Desmond Wade and Derek Needham on the outside.
"They really created a lot of problems for us as far as handling their pressure," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "We had 23 turnovers which is very disappointing, and the way we attacked -- we looked pretty disorganized in doing it."
The Gophers weren't able to get into any rhythm until Austin Hollins snatched the momentum with two dunks -- one a ferocious, one-handed putback to put them up 29-24 going into the break.
Three minutes into the second half, Mbakwe took control. He was fouled six times in the final 17 minutes, and he made Fairfield (1-2) pay. He made a favorable impression on the announced 10,641 in attendance, who actually sounded surprised when he missed one of his final two shots from the line.
"Trevor and the weapons he's got, as far as his physicality inside -- he's going to get fouled," Smith said. "When you have a guy that can do that you know you're always in the game, and that can stop the bleeding. When you're not scoring, you can get it to him and force the foul."