In its first game without star and leader Trevor Mbakwe, the emotionally drained Gophers -- by most media and fan accounts -- were expected to crumble. They didn't.
Powered by players who hadn't been in the starting lineup all season and others who have stayed mainly in the shadows all year, the Gophers overcame a late three-point barrage from Virginia Tech and crept past the Hokies in an emotional 58-55 victory in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Wednesday in Williams Arena.
"Obviously, everyone was expecting us to lose," said guard Julian Welch, noting the major losses of Mbakwe, who is out for the season because of a torn right ACL, and a temporarily hobbled Ralph Sampson III. "It was just us against the world, so we just came in with that type mindset and just played our hearts out."
One of the toughest games they've played all year brought out the toughest in several players. With Sampson -- who is nursing a turned ankle -- joining Mbakwe on the bench, the Gophers got a season-best effort from Elliott Eliason, who was stellar in the post all night, finishing with eight points and seven rebounds. Rodney Williams had perhaps his best all-around game. Welch, in his first start, was clutch at the end, finishing with 15 points and four assists.
With 2 1/2 minutes left on the clock, the Hokies, who refused to go away despite the Gophers' tenacity, took a 53-51 lead on a 12-foot jumper from Erick Green. Green led the Hokies' attack with 25 points, including four three-pointers.
But the Gophers grappled to the end as a jersey-less Mbakwe brought his typical heated enthusiasm from the sideline, screaming encouragement to his teammates as they charged onto the court for the final minute of play. With 18 seconds remaining and the Hokies still up by one, Welch sunk two free throws to give the team a one-point lead, and then sunk two more nine seconds later to ensure the victory.
Green, who appeared to hurt his right shoulder as he slid off the raised court in the waning seconds, rimmed out a three-pointer at the buzzer.
"For us to be good, we have to be scrappers, hustler players, we have to do the little things, just like coach always preaches," said Welch, who said he grew up visualizing moments like the one he had to win it. "Especially now that we don't have Trevor."
That gutty mentality showed from the start, when the Gophers jumped out to a quick 8-0 start. Andre Hollins led the early drive with four quick points, and the rest of the guards were showing their athleticism. Eliason was looking good, the defense was solid -- it was working, without Sampson or Mbakwe.
But the real challenge came after a 15-5 Virginia Tech run put the Hokies up 28-25 at halftime and put the pressure on the young Gophers lineup.
The home team responded with poise, coach Tubby Smith said, hanging with the Hokies, who stayed dangerously close with a barrage of precise three-point shots. But the Gophers held their resolve.
"Confidence definitely grew as the game went on," said Williams, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. "Just seeing that everyone body else was around me was playing hard the whole time. When you've got Trevor cheering you on, he could be at home sulking, but I think with him there amping us on, I think that gave us a lot of confidence as well."