MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Trevor Mbakwe’s last home game for Minnesota was supposed to be two years ago.
The occasion has finally arrived, though, and it’s only fitting that Rodney Williams will share the sure-to-be-emotional experience with him.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but it’s always been good to be here in front of our home crowd. I’m going to miss it,” Williams said the day before the Gophers were to host Penn State.
Mbakwe and Williams have each endured plenty of stress and struggle during their time together here, but these two Minnesota-born-and-bred guys are at least in position to go out strong. Though Smith tried hard this week to keep the Gophers in a business-like mindset and avoid another letdown, they’re still thriving off that victory over top-ranked Indiana on Tuesday.
For the first time in their college career, they were able to watch the crowd swarm the raised court when the buzzer sounded in the euphoric, historic arena. Now they have an opportunity to get back on track and enter the postseason with some momentum. They’ve never won an NCAA tournament game, and for Mbakwe the old college try started all the way back in the fall of 2007.
“It was a wonderful moment. I wanted to soak up as much as I could,” he said after the 77-73 win over the Hoosiers.
Mbakwe’s freshman season at Marquette was cut short by a knee injury. He spent the next year at Miami Dade Community College before transferring to Minnesota and joining a heralded recruiting class that included Williams, Royce White and Justin Cobbs.
White is now in the pros. Cobbs is a star for Cal. But Mbakwe and Williams are still around, eager to close their careers here with an important win over the Nittany Lions, who are coming off an upset of their own over No. 4 Michigan.
“I hope they can play well. I hope they have a memorable game,” Smith said. “It’s always a bittersweet-type thing when you have senior day. But this has been a good group to coach.”
Smith said he’ll also probably start Andre Ingram and Julian Welch, two other seniors who transferred into the program.
Williams had a daughter, Suriyah, in 2010. After wowing the crowds right away with his exceptional athleticism and dunking ability, he struggled to find confidence with the ball and didn’t break through until his junior year after Mbakwe got hurt. Even this year, bothered by a shoulder injury, he has disappeared at times on the court.
Mbakwe had to sit out the 2009-10 season while a court case against him played out. Then after a standout junior year, he suffered a serious knee injury seven games into last season. Granted a sixth year of eligibility, Mbakwe took a while to find his stride this season. He finally had that dominant game on Tuesday with 21 points and 12 rebounds against Indiana.
Meanwhile, the Gophers lost eight of 11 games after reaching as high as eighth in the Associated Press rankings.
“We went through some tough stretches and had some tough losses, but the way we bounced back was unbelievable,” Mbakwe said. “We showed we can beat the best team in the country. We have to build off this. We can’t have any letdowns. Hopefully this changes the season around for the better.”
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, who recruited him at Marquette, said he didn’t think Mbakwe would be there for any more than two or three years. Yet here he is at age 24, working on his master’s degree at Minnesota. He has a 5-year-old son, Makhi.
“He’s been around forever. He should be giving us a gift. Well, he has. He’s given us the gift of his presence here,” Smith said. “Another win would be a good gift for us, for Gopher fans and everyone else.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)