MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Rodney Williams had 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks while filling in at power forward for injured star Trevor Mbakwe, lifting Minnesota to a 58-55 victory over Virginia Tech on Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Julian Welch scored 15 points and hit two free throws with 18.9 seconds to go that gave the Golden Gophers the lead for good.
Elliott Eliason added eight points, seven rebounds and two blocks for the Gophers (7-1), who played their first game after Mbakwe was lost for the season with a right knee injury.
Erick Green scored 25 points for the Hokies (5-2) but was hampered in the final 19 seconds after falling off Williams Arena’s raised floor and landing on his right shoulder. He returned, and his 3-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out.
Robert Brown added 13 points and Victor Davila scored 10 for Virginia Tech, which led 55-54 after Green scored on a put-back with 25 seconds to go. But he spilled off the court on the other end, and Welch hit all four of his free throws in the final 19 seconds to clinch the victory for Minnesota.
The Gophers were also missing senior center Ralph Sampson III, who did not play because of a sprained left ankle. Even without their two big post players, Minnesota still outscored the Hokies 38-16 in the paint.
The Gophers lost Mbakwe to a torn ACL in a loss to Dayton on Sunday, leaving them without their top scorer, rebounder and captain, the player who was carrying this young team on both ends of the floor.
Coach Tubby Smith has spent the last few days trying to keep his players from putting too much pressure on themselves individually to fill the enormous void left by Mbakwe, but Eliason was visibly flustered Tuesday as he spoke about needing to raise his level of play.
He came out determined in the early going Wednesday night, scoring on two put-backs, pulling down five rebounds and blocking a shot in the first 11 minutes. The Gophers got out to a 10-2 lead, capitalizing on some sloppy turnovers from the Hokies and energizing a Williams Arena crowd that was sullen before tipoff.
Virginia Tech weathered the early charge, started knocking down some 3-pointers and gradually got back into the game. Brown hit two 3s, and the Hokies finished the half on a 15-5 run to take a 28-26 lead at the break.
The Hokies have had their share of injury problems as well. Senior forward JT Thompson tore the ACL in his right knee on Nov. 2 and will miss the entire season after missing all of last year with a torn ACL in his left knee. They are also waiting for Marquis Rankin to return from knee surgery.
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