Least of the Big East gives Gophers tournament scare

  • Article by: MICHAEL RAND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 11:25 AM

DePaul led by 12 before Rodney Williams helped fuel a comeback.

Junior forward Rodney Williams

ORLANDO - It was the kind of all-around performance -- and big-time play -- Gophers fans have grown accustomed to seeing from Trevor Mbakwe.

But for Rodney Williams? It was the kind of performance everyone associated with the Gophers has been waiting to see -- and wanting to see often.

The Gophers men's basketball team needed every bit of what both had to offer to squeeze out an 86-85 victory over DePaul on Thursday in the opening round of the Old Spice Classic.

Mbakwe, playing with four fouls, took a key charge in the final minute with the Gophers clinging to a one-point lead. And after two missed free throws by Julian Welch, Williams delivered a clutch putback layup for the final two of his career-high 18 points. DePaul made a meaningless two-pointer after missing a three-pointer that would have tied the score, providing the final margin.

Mbakwe finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds on a coolly efficient 6-for-7 shooting day from the field. But it was Williams' performance, which included four dunks -- two of them thunderous, in-the-flow-of-offense game-changers -- that likely kept the Gophers (5-0) from their first loss of the season.

"I'm being aggressive all the time instead of just in spurts," Williams said.

Williams was 7-for-9 from the field and had nine points in each half -- none bigger than the last two for the Gophers, who trailed by 12 points in the second half. Williams added five rebounds, two assists and two steals in what might have been a breakout performance for the junior who tantalized with flashes of talent and athleticism during his first two seasons.

DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said he was surprised by Williams' production but noted the tempo was suited to his skills.

"This is his kind of game," Purnell said. "When we're pressing up and down the floor, there are going to be some open-court situations."

Before anyone gets too excited, consider: DePaul was a combined 2-52 in Big East games over the past three years and was picked by conference coaches in the preseason to again be the worst of the league's 16 teams.

That said, the Blue Demons came in 2-0 and look to be at least somewhat improved. They harassed the Gophers into 11 first-half turnovers and made five of 10 threes before the break to take a 43-33 lead.

But with contributions from many sources, the Gophers rallied. Ralph Sampson, who missed Monday's game because of an ankle injury, started and chipped in eight points with four rebounds in 15 minutes. Ten different players played double-digit minutes, including all five in the crunch-time lineup of Mbakwe, Williams, Austin Hollins (11 points), Julian Welch (11 points) and Chip Armelin (six points). Their quickness helped limit DePaul to 1-for-9 three-point shooting after the break.

"Everybody contributed positively to us winning the game," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "Whoever is playing well at that particular time, that's who I usually go with."

Count Mbakwe among those hoping to see more strong play from Williams.

"We have to have this performance from him every night," Mbakwe said. "He definitely helped us win this game, and I don't know where we would have been without him."

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    He scored a career-high 18 points, including four thunderous dunks and a key putback late that helped seal the victory.

  • Gophers-Indiana State game preview

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    Gophers update: It wasn't easy, but the Gophers (5-0) advanced to the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic with an 86-85 victory over DePaul on Thanksgiving. Rodney Williams led the...

  • OLD SPICE CLASSIC GOPHERS 86, DEPAUL 85

    Up next: 11 a.m. Friday vs. Indiana State (semifinals) • TV: ESPN (1500ESPN)

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