MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Trevor Mbakwe had 20 points and 10 rebounds for Minnesota, going 16 for 18 from the free-throw line to give the Gophers enough for an ugly 67-57 victory over Fairfield on Thursday night.
Minnesota (3-0) committed 23 turnovers and was limited mostly to Mbakwe’s free throws and a handful of putback dunks, but that was all the offense it needed to stop the Stags (1-2).
Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander had 14 points each for Fairfield, which made just 2 of 16 attempts from 3-point range and turned the ball over 20 times. The Stags missed eight of their 23 free throws, squandering an opportunity to knock off a major-conference team on the road.
Mbakwe has posted a double-double in each of Minnesota’s three games. This was his first 20-10 performance.
Mbakwe also finished one short of the school’s single-game record for free throws made. Larry Mikan sank 17 in a game in 1969.
Mbakwe’s wrist has been bothering him for the past week — he wore a brace during practice — and he made only one of his five field-goal attempts in the first half. But he came through again when the Gophers needed him most, tallying 12 points over the final 20 minutes. He has grabbed exactly 10 rebounds in each of the three games, and 38 of his 54 points have come in the second half.
The Gophers trailed three times in the first half but gradually created a cushion down the stretch, with all those marches to the line by the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Mbakwe, who overpowered the skinnier Stags underneath with his muscle. Olander is a 7-footer, but he’s listed at just 220 pounds. He is Fairfield’s only starter taller than 6-5.
Freshman Oto Osienieks, a lanky native of Latvia with the potential to be Minnesota’s best outside shooter, gave the Gophers a couple of timely 3-pointers midway through the second half. The second one made it 45-37 Minnesota.
Fairfield never trailed by double digits, thanks to some pesky defense, and the Stags did their best to force the Gophers into some stagnant, sloppy possessions. Senior center Ralph Sampson had a particularly rough game, finishing with eight points but four turnovers. Freshman point guard Andre Hollins had 12 points, but he had five turnovers. Rodney Williams limped off in the second half with an apparent ankle injury.
The Stags (1-2) haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since consecutive appearances in 1986 and 1987. They were the top seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament last season, losing in the semifinals following back-to-back defeats in the title game the previous two years. First-year head coach Sydney Johnson, who came from Princeton, inherited an experienced squad that finished 25-8 last season and lost in the second round of the NIT.
The first half was ragged, to put it mildly, with 22 combined turnovers and just one 3-pointer made in 13 tries between the teams. The pace was out of control at times, and more than one player lost his balance and fell to the court.
Perimeter defense has been a problem for Minnesota over the past year, so the fact that Fairfield shot 1 for 10 from behind the arc before halftime was a good sign for the Gophers, even they only held a 29-24 lead at the break.
Austin Hollins gave them a much-needed lift late in the first period, rising above the crowd at the basket and throwing down a one-handed putback dunk to put them up by three with 2:13 left. Sixty-nine seconds later, he stole the ball in the backcourt from Sean Crawford and sped the other way for a slam to stretch the lead to five.
These teams could play twice in a nine-day span. This was considered a preliminary game for next weekend’s Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., an exemption the Gophers used to get another home date and 31 games on their regular-season schedule. Minnesota and Fairfield are on opposite ends of the Old Spice Classic bracket, but they could meet again on Nov. 26.
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