MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Trevor Mbakwe helped Minnesota pull away from Bucknell with 13 of his 17 points in the second half as the Gophers beat the Bison 70-58 Friday in their season opener.
Mbakwe took a beating underneath and spent much of the game on the floor, but he grabbed 10 rebounds for the double-double and went 9 for 13 from the free-throw line to help the Gophers close the game on a 22-5 run and avoid defeat at home to start a season for the first time in 23 years.
Bison star Mike Muscala had 12 points and 11 rebounds in his home state, and Bryson Johnson made four 3-pointers in the first half to finish with 16 points. Cameron Ayers added 13 points.
Austin Hollins scored 13 points, Julian Welch added seven points, two assists and two steals, and Ralph Sampson chipped in eight points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks before fouling out.
The Gophers missed 12 free throws and went just 7 for 25 from the field in the second half, but their scrappy play enabled them to remain in the game.
Ayers sandwiched 3-pointers around a 3-pointer by Bryan Cohen to give the Bison their biggest lead, 53-48 with less than six minutes left. Mbakwe and Hollins reversed that by combining to score the game’s next 10 points and give the Gophers a 58-53 advantage. Cohen fouled Hollins on a 3-pointer and fell and banged the back of his head on the floor, needing a towel to stop the bleeding. Hollins swished all three free throws and gave the Gophers some breathing room with 2:35 remaining.
This wasn’t the typical low-major opponent for the Gophers to open the season against. Bucknell, not Minnesota, made the NCAA tournament last season. The Bison brought back four starters from a team that went 25-9, losing in the first round to eventual national champion Connecticut. They were picked to win the Patriot League for a second straight year in the conference’s preseason poll.
The Gophers had a pair of ragged exhibition wins over Division II teams in the region and they reminded their restless fans, who have yet to enjoy an NCAA tournament victory in almost five years with coach Tubby Smith, that they have several flaws to fix if they’re going to compete in the Big Ten this season. The Gophers haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1997, which was a regional final victory over UCLA that doesn’t officially count anymore due to the academic fraud scandal uncovered two years later.
The Gophers didn’t lack effort, but they went through multiple lulls and sloppy stretches throughout the game, failing to finish a bevy of layups or give the Bison any reason not to swarm Mbakwe with three defenders in the lane.
Minnesota finished 3 for 15 from 3-point range and didn’t guard very well on the perimeter from a defensive standpoint.
Mbakwe threw down a couple of vicious dunks in the first half and Sampson swished three top-of-the-key jump shots, but there weren’t many offensive highlights for this young team. Chip Armelin and Elliott Eliason provided energy for the second team – Smith has long favored mass substitutions – and Sampson played decent defense on Muscala, but the game had the look and feel of a season opener. The Bison finally took the lead early in the second half on Muscala’s layup, making it 35-33, and the score was tight the rest of the way.
Muscala spent four minutes on the bench in the first half, without a foul. The 6-foot-11 junior, who played at Roseville High School, just a few miles north of the Minnesota campus, missed his first four shots and had a turnover, too. Yet, he brought the Bison within 23-20 with 4:36 left before the break when the Gophers failed to box him out during a missed free throw and he went up for an easy tip-in.
The reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, Muscala will have to be on his game to help Bucknell get off to a strong start this season. The Bison have seven nonconference games against NCAA tournament teams from last year, including a trip to Vanderbilt on Tuesday and a game at Syracuse in December.
Former Ohio State head coach Randy Ayers sat behind the Bucknell bench to watch his son, Cameron Ayers. The sophomore starter, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, finished 4 for 9 from the floor.
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