MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With more help down low, Ralph Sampson III is finally feeling more freedom to assert himself all over the court.
Sampson scored 20 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds to lead Minnesota to a 69-55 victory over Wofford on Friday night.
Sampson added three blocks and Trevor Mbakwe finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds as Minnesota used a distinct size advantage to win the opener for both teams.
“That’s what we expect,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said of Sampson. “Ralph is stronger. His stamina has improved. He’s always had a good touch. It’s just playing with that level of energy every time, all the time.”
Noah Dahlman, the 2010 Southern Conference player of the year, led four Wofford players in double figures with 15 points. Tim Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds for the Terriers.
Sampson’s outburst was just what the Gophers needed one day after junior guard Devoe Joseph was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules.
Without a go-to scorer and missing perhaps its most versatile offensive player in Joseph, Minnesota used its length against the Terriers. The Gophers outrebounded Wofford 41-31, blocked six shots and scored 32 points in the paint.
“We’re going to get off to good starts by our inside game and putting the other team in foul trouble and getting easy points from the free-throw line,” Mbakwe said. “As a frontcourt, we have to keep playing the way we’ve been playing the last three games.”
Facing their only deficit of the game at 7-5, the Gophers responded with a 14-2 run to take control.
Sampson scored seven points during the streak, including a soaring dunk and just his second career 3-pointer. He was 1 of 3 from beyond the arc in the game after going just 1 for 6 in his career from 3-point territory.
“I really think it was a team effort as far as us swinging the ball,” Sampson said. “I just happened to be in the open areas, I guess, at the right time.”
The 6-foot-11 Sampson was a key part of Smith’s first recruiting class at Minnesota and had shown glimpses of his potential in his first two seasons.
Yet many believe Sampson is capable of taking another step forward in his junior year. Combining with the finally eligible Mbakwe and fellow center Colton Iverson, the Gophers should present a matchup problem inside against most opponents. Add in 6-foot-10, 289-pound freshman Maurice Walker, and Minnesota has a size advantage against most any team.
“I feel a lot more free, especially with Trevor here, Colton and Mo down in the post area,” Sampson said. “So now teams not only have to focus on me and Colton, but we also have the athletic and aggressive Trevor Mbakwe now to watch out for. If they double-team one of us, I think all four of us are great passers and we can also hit the open man. I thought we swung the ball well tonight, and it definitely opened up more opportunities in the post for us.”
Mbakwe, a transfer who sat out the 2009-10 season due to off-the-court problems, displayed his strength and athleticism. The first time he touched the ball on offense, he finished with an emphatic dunk and yelled in the direction of the student section at Williams Arena.
“I felt like a new person out there,” Mbakwe said. “It was great. My first play, my first points as a Gopher was a dunk. It was a great feeling to be out there.”
Wofford, an NCAA tournament team last season after winning the Southern Conference South Division, is part of a beefed-up nonconference schedule for the Gophers. The Terriers cut the lead to eight points with just over a minute remaining, but another Mbakwe dunk took the momentum away.
“It’s a wake-up call early,” Dahlman said. “Playing against a team in the Big Ten, it exposes a lot of things for you. We didn’t do a lot things right tonight.”
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