MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Replacing Trevor Mbakwe is a tall order. So far, Rodney Williams has proved up to the challenge.
Williams hit multiple clutch shots en route to a career-high tying 18 points and had a career-best five blocked shots as Minnesota held off Appalachian State 70-56 Tuesday night.
Williams hit 8 of 10 shots and grabbed six rebounds in 36 minutes — his average through three games since Mbakwe, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, was lost for the season with a torn right ACL. The junior topped 29 minutes just once in his seven previous contests.
“We needed every minute from Rodney,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “I’m really impressed with how he’s matured. Guys are looking for him and he’s looking to take charge.”
Ralph Sampson III, who missed two games due to a left ankle injury, returned to supply 10 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench. Julian Welch scored 15 points, including six during the Gophers’ 18-4 surge to end the game. Joe Coleman added 10 points.
Omar Carter led the Mountaineers (4-4) with 18 points. Rodney Milum added a career-high 16, going 5 for 9 from behind the 3-point line.
“We did what we wanted to do for roughly 37 minutes,” Appalachian State coach Jason Capel said. “We had some breakdowns, but playing hard makes up for some of that.”
Carter’s 3-pointer with 5:23 remaining tied the score at 52, but Minnesota took over from there. Williams hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring on the Gophers’ next possession, followed by Chip Armelin’s three-point play and Welch’s layup — both off of steals — to put the Gophers (9-1) ahead for good.
Williams scored five points in the decisive run to end the game and Sampson added four.
“Something needed to happen right there,” Williams said about his third successful 3-pointer this season. “I just let it go and it felt good.”
Williams began his junior campaign as the starting small forward, but was inconsistent playing away from the basket. Now playing power forward with Mbakwe on the shelf, he’s growing more comfortable with his role.
“Coach would throw me in at practice even last year at the (power forward) spot, so I had a pretty good feel for what I was going to need to do to be successful,” Williams said. “But getting the experience in these last few games has been really good for me.”
With Williams lurking in the paint, the Mountaineers shot just 28 percent in the second half — including 3 for 11 from the 3-point line after a 6-for-10 mark from long range in the first half. The Gophers entered the game 11th in the Big Ten allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from beyond the arc.
“Just getting defensive stops every timeout, that’s what coach kept on preaching,” Welch said. “We were just worried about the defensive end and no easy threes.”
The Gophers missed their first seven shots from the floor, but hit 14 of their next 19 before halftime. Still, Appalachian State trailed by just two at the break thanks to Milum, who scored nine points on three 3-pointers during a 11-3 Mountaineers run to end the half.
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