MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Trevor Mbakwe spent much of the summer determined to turn one of his biggest weaknesses into a strength.
The early signs on his free throw shooting are promising, and that’s great news for a Minnesota team that figures to rely heavily on the burly power forward once the regular season begins.
Mbakwe had 22 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks to lift Minnesota to a 72-60 exhibition victory over Augustana (SD) on Monday night.
Mbakwe went 12 for 13 from the line, including 7 for 7 in the final six minutes to help the Golden Gophers seal another unconvincing exhibition victory over a Division II team.
“Last year down the stretch I don’t think I did a good job of stepping up and being a leader,” Mbakwe said. “That’s where the better players show their true colors. I just wanted to keep being aggressive … and I was able to make my free throws and I think that played a big part in how we were able to finish down the stretch.”
The Golden Gophers blocked 13 shots, but trailed at halftime and never could pull away from the feisty Vikings.
Drae Murray scored 19 of his 22 points in the first half and Cody Schilling had 16 points and eight rebounds for the Vikings, who were down just three with 4:30 to play.
But the Gophers closed the game on a 9-0 run and will head back to practice with plenty to work on before Bucknell comes to town to open the regular season Friday night.
Rodney Williams was the only other Gophers player in double figures. He finished with 10 points.
“We’ve got to improve in a lot of different areas,” coach Tubby Smith said.
After beating Bemidji State 71-58 last week, Minnesota delivered another shaky performance against a supposedly inferior team.
The Vikings gave the Gophers all they could handle after making the 4-hour drive from Sioux Falls. With a vocal contingent of Auggie backers in the upper deck, Murray shot 5 of 6 on 3-pointers on his way to 19 points in the first half.
Listed generously at 5-foot-9, Murray stood toe-to-toe with the bigger, stronger Gophers. The transfer from Division I Sam Houston State hit step-back 3s, created problems with his quickness off the dribble and helped the Vikings to a 38-33 halftime lead.
Augustana went 7 of 17 on 3s in the first 20 minutes while Minnesota was just 2 for 10.
“I didn’t think we backed down to them at all,” said coach Tom Billeter, whose team outrebounded the Gophers 19-12 on the offensive glass. “They’re just really fast and big.”
The Gophers appeared to be taking some control in the first three minutes of the second half when Austin Hollins hit two 3s and finished an alley-oop from Mbakwe during an 11-2 run. Williams’ layup made it 48-40.
The Vikings came right back with six quick points to keep the game from getting out of control, then went on another mini-run 8 minutes later. Brennan Olson dunked on Ralph Sampson III to make it 57-55 with 7 minutes to play.
They didn’t trail by more than six points until the final two minutes, but Mbakwe proved to be just a little too much to handle down low.
“I think he understands that he’s physical enough and athletic enough that when he does get in there, he’s hard to stop,” Smith said. “You can’t really stop him 1-on-1.”
As far as confidence builders go, this one won’t do much for the Gophers, who turned it over 17 times and shot just 5 of 17 on 3-pointers.
Augustana shot 32 percent, didn’t block a shot and got poor shooting nights from two of its best players, but still managed to hang around until the end. Schilling, the 2008 Associated Press high school player of the year in Minnesota, made just six of 21 shots and Cameron McCaffrey managed only six points on 2-for-11 shooting.
“We knew we could have won the game,” said Murray, who was slowed in the second half after spending much of halftime vomiting in the locker room. “We came into the game feeling like we could win the game. We’ve just got a few things we have to fix up before the season starts. But it was a good experience for us to come and play the Gophers.”
Augustana opens the regular season Nov. 15 against Sioux Falls.
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