Souhan: All these years later, Trevor Mbakwe was easily the best

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2013 - 11:58 AM
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The Gophers' Trevor Mbakwe fought over a rebound with Indiana's Derek Elston during the first half at Williams Arena on Tuesday.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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The NCAA should feature Trevor Mbakwe in a series of stay-in-school ads. The Gophers center is proof that something good is bound to happen if you hang around campus for a couple of decades.

"I've been here," he said, "for an eternity.''

Since enrolling at Marquette in 2007 after signing with a young coach named Tom Crean, Mbakwe began touring campuses like he was a member of Mumford & Sons. In all that time, he had never experienced anything like what happened at the Barn on Tuesday night, when he wrenched a 77-73 victory from No. 1 Indiana and prompted the first storming of a court surrounded by a moat that anyone could remember.

"It was so crowded," Mbakwe said. "I got hotter in there than I did during the game."

Gophers fans, unlike Indiana's centers, didn't mind putting a body on him. In a game that teased those same fans about Mbakwe's NBA potential and his team's NCAA tournament chances, the powerful senior flicked away Indiana center Cody Zeller like road salt off a winter boot.

Mbakwe finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal in 25 minutes. He went 8-for-10 from the field and 5-for-7 from the line.

Most important to his wobbly team, Mbakwe let it be known early that he could dominate Indiana's skilled-but-willowy inside players, letting it be known early that the Gophers had what it takes to beat a great team.

He scored the Gophers' first three baskets and 10 of their first 14 points. When he slammed Zeller to the ground while blocking his shot midway through the first half, the Gophers took a 16-10 lead and Williams Arena felt like it would pop a few bolts.

With fellow center Elliott Eliason producing seven points and five rebounds in 14 minutes, the Gophers outrebounded Indiana 44-30. After playing so timidly in so many important games, the Gophers finally flexed their atrophied muscles.

"I wanted to come out and be aggressive," Mbakwe said. "I needed to demand the ball. Coach expected more leadership out of us. He was hard on us, and we deserved it. We played embarrassing the last two games.

"The refs were letting us play. We took advantage of it. And Elliott played great for us."

In a game that had NBA scouts hanging from the rafters, Mbakwe was the best player on the court. He even extended his shooting range on a couple of jump shots.

Having won a game that became an advertisement for the frenetic glory of college basketball at its best, Mbakwe stood on the court as students outraced senior citizens onto the court.

The crowd packed around the Gophers players, who embraced one another in a group hug within a group hug. Mbakwe raised his arms and patted teammates on the head.

When he finally made it to the locker room, Mbakwe couldn't stop smiling. He joked earlier in the season about winning the "11th man of the year award" as coach Tubby Smith eased him into the lineup.

Now, after enrolling at Marquette and then Miami Dade College before returning home to Minnesota, he had created the biggest spontaneous party you can have on campus without getting arrested. "I've never been better,"he said. "That was hands-down the best."

Crean remembers recruiting Mbakwe out of Henry Sibley High. "He's a high-level, high-energy tough guy who plays the game with desperation," Crean said.

"He's endured a lot. When we were at Marquette and signed him, I didn't think we'd have him more than two or three years, tops.

"I left, and he left, and here we are all these years later.

"He was the toughest guy on the court today, and we didn't have an answer for him."

Mbakwe was asked for an answer: Did this one night reward all those years on campuses?

"Definitely a reward," he said. "This is something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Him and all those people who proved that it's possible to storm a raised floor.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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