MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Ralph Sampson III had 15 points, six rebounds and four blocks and Rodney Williams added 14 points and eight boards to lift Minnesota to a 63-59 victory over plucky North Dakota State on Thursday night.
Maverick Ahanmisi added 13 points and three steals for the Golden Gophers (12-1), who hung on despite missing nine free throws and being outrebounded 39-28.
Taylor Braun had 13 points and 11 rebounds and Dylan Hale scored 13 for the Bison (8-3). North Dakota State turned the ball over 14 times, which kept them from completing what would have been an impressive upset.
Minnesota has struggled all season at the free-throw line, but Sampson came through when the Gophers needed it most. He made 7 of 8 shots from the line, including two with less than 14 seconds to play that iced the victory.
This was the last pre-Big Ten tuneup for the Gophers, who got a lot more than they bargained for from the little school from Fargo.
Down 14-2 early, Minnesota climbed back into it with some strong pressure defense to take a 32-29 lead at the half. The Gophers looked to be pulling away early in the second period with a 41-32 lead with 16 minutes to play, but North Dakota State didn’t back down.
Braun scored on a tough leaner in the lane, then again on a drive to the basket for a 53-52 lead with under 8 minutes to go.
But Ahanmisi, who started because Andre Hollins has been limited with an ankle injury, responded with a three-point play and another jumper from the wing to put Minnesota back in front with 4:32 to play, and the Gophers never trailed after that.
Minnesota has played a creampuff nonconference schedule that included Appalachian State, St. Peter’s and Central Michigan in the last two weeks.
The schedule makers actually did the Gophers a favor this season because star forward Trevor Mbakwe was lost for the season with a knee injury, and the soft schedule has allowed them to find their way without their leader.
The Gophers won all six games without Mbakwe, but now the competition gets much stiffer. The Gophers open Big Ten play on Tuesday at No. 25 Illinois and go to No. 20 Michigan before their conference home opener against Iowa on Jan. 4.
The Bison set the tone early, using hard-nosed rebounding and some slick execution in the halfcourt to take a 14-2 lead in the first seven minutes.
The Gophers missed 12 of their first 13 shots, but coach Tubby Smith turned up the heat on defense with a full-court press and it rattled the young Bison. They used a 10-0 run to tie the game at 19, a spurt capped by a monster dunk in transition from Williams that woke the Barn up from the fog of a slow start.
North Dakota State only plays one senior, with the rest of its regulars all underclassmen including Hale, a redshirt sophomore. As the Gophers turned up the pressure, the Bison got loose with the ball and it cost them.