Seniors give emphatic farewell in rout

The Gophers beat Penn State by 29 points in their last home game.

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams makes a move against Penn State on Saturday, March 2, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Image by Amanda Snyder

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams makes a move against Penn State on Saturday, March 2, 2013, at Williams Arena.

by Andrew Krammer

The Gophers’ Julian Welch lobbed an alley-oop pass to Rodney Williams with 15 seconds left in the first half of Minnesota’s 73-44 win over Penn State on Saturday afternoon.

Welch’s errant pass almost missed Williams, who stretched out his 6-foot-10-inch wingspan to grab the ball and dunk it with his left hand.

His acrobatics caused the announced Williams Arena crowd of 12,562 to erupt.

“The guys said it’s my best [dunk],” Williams said. “So I’m going to go with those guys.”

Williams’ 160th career dunk was one of his last at Williams Arena.

Seniors Welch, Williams, Trevor Mbakwe and Andre Ingram all started and said farewell to the Barn on Senior Day — the Gophers’ final home game this season.

Williams jumped into Mbakwe’s arms before the Gophers went into the locker room at halftime. They led 34-12 at the half after holding Penn State (1-15 Big Ten) scoreless for more than 11 minutes to start the game.

Back-to-back wins over No. 1 Indiana last Tuesday and Penn State on Saturday have the Gophers (8-8 Big Ten) playing like they did during their 15-1 start to the season.

Minnesota is 5-8 since.

“It’s more special now because of the tough stretch we had,” Mbakwe said.

Mbakwe has combined to score 34 points and 25 rebounds in the two wins.

The Gophers jumped out to a 16-0 lead Saturday and kept their foot on the gas throughout the game.

“I was concerned with how our guys would respond after the good win we had against Indiana,” head coach Tubby Smith said. “But it being a home game, Senior Day, our guys were very focused.”

The Nittany Lions shot 0-for-11 from the floor before sophomore guard D.J. Newbill hit a jumper at the 8:42 mark.

The Gophers held Penn State to 12 first-half points, the fewest they’ve allowed all season.

“I would say these are two of our better games,” Williams said. “When the offense wasn’t as good, we relied on defense. That’s what good teams do.”

Penn State implemented a zone defense that many Gophers opponents have used successfully against Minnesota.

Despite starters Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman coming off the bench, Minnesota’s offense didn’t flinch.

Senior reserves Ingram and Welch combined for the game’s first seven points. Ingram’s start was the first of his career.

Mbakwe and Williams combined to score the next six points and finished with 13 and 10 points, respectively.

Minnesota’s four seniors combined for 37 points.

“Four years seemed like forever, but it went by so fast,” said Mbakwe, who has played only two full seasons at Minnesota. “Great to see the crowd, the ovation they gave us. I’m going to remember that for a long time.”

Fans chant at seniors, Vaughn

The Gophers’ student section started many chants during Saturday’s lopsided victory.

Echoes of “thank you seniors” reverberated off the walls of Williams Arena as Minnesota’s four seniors played up until the last few minutes.

Williams was the last senior to come off the court, and fans cheered him on with “one last dunk” chants.

Williams deferred to Welch, who was fouled trying to dunk, during one of his last possessions.

“I wanted to get one last one,” Williams said, “but you can’t always get what you want.”

Fans also chanted “we want Vaughn” in the direction of Gophers recruit and Robbinsdale Cooper High School junior Rashad Vaughn, who was in attendance behind the Gophers’ bench.

Minnesota athletics director Norwood Teague and Smith both approached Vaughn during the game to speak with him.

Vaughn is ranked as the top shooting guard prospect of 2014 by ESPN and has offers from Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville and Minnesota, among others.