Just a few weeks ago, Ralph Sampson III seemed like a pillar of the Gophers lineup. After all, he was one of two seniors, widely considered the team's second-best player after Trevor Mbakwe and one of the biggest, strongest guys on the team.
A startling confluence of events, however, suddenly had put his role in doubt.
On Saturday, with a ready replacement waiting on the bench, Sampson started to play like a man fighting for his job.
In his second game back from an ankle injury, Sampson's solid, all-around outing sparked a 69-47 victory over St. Peter's at Williams Arena.
The senior -- who said his ankle feels about 97 percent healed now -- finished with a team high in both points (15) and rebounds (eight) and also had four assists and four blocks.
The Gophers led 34-23 at halftime and never were really threatened in the second half.
Sparked by Sampson, the Gophers dominated the boards, 38-26, and limited the Peacocks to 40 percent shooting while hitting 46 percent themselves.
But despite the strong game, Sampson still seemed more than happy to continue to ease the leadership role onto Rodney Williams. Sampson's happy to be back, but he's not feeling any special drive to jump into the captain's seat.
"It just proves to myself that I can still go on my ankle and I can still put weight on it," Sampson said of his performance Saturday, his best this season. "And having teammates like Rodney, who can go off and [we can] put a bunch on him, it just takes a lot of pressure off me so I can just relax and focus on the things I can do.
"I recognize that our team is now lacking experiencewise, leadershipwise, but I think the team has taken it upon themselves to step up individually and be accountable of each other. I saw that when I was sitting there, out, and I saw that stepping back in and being able to play again."
After Mbakwe was lost for the season because of an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee, lingering soreness in Sampson's ankle sidelined him two games and forced him to come off the bench for another. Meanwhile, a medley of players expected to have smaller roles stepped up and pushed the team to three big victories while Sampson watched from the bench.
Williams claimed the role of leader, dominating for stretches in a way he never has. Julian Welch led the team in points for two of those three games and was perfect from the line for 23 tries. Elliott Eliason looked very comfortable replacing Sampson, giving the Gophers a more aggressive presence at center than before.
"It was very frustrating for me," Sampson said. "I knew we were already shorthanded ... I couldn't get out there and play my best or compete like I wanted to. But then, after Trevor went down, I felt like it was almost a vacuum effect. ... It was nice to see the team come together after that whole situation and be able to push forward and come together as a unit and be able to accomplish goals and the things that we set up for."
With Williams not as aggressive Saturday and Welch's free throw shots clanging off the rim late, Sampson was the one who picked up the slack with nine second-half points and helped the Gophers better contain forward Darius Conley -- who scored 13 of St. Peter's 23 points in the first half.
At the start, Sampson looked rusty. He missed his first two jump shots and then had one ball ripped from him and another one smacked away as he was trying to finish a tip-dunk.
He finished strong, and has shown Gophers coach Tubby Smith enough to earn his starting spot back -- for now -- but the coach isn't exactly singing his praises just yet. When asked what gave Sampson the edge over Eliason, Smith simply read the senior's line for the day.
"If he can give us that, he will be great," Smith said.
And with an intriguing backup in the wings, he will have to.