Gophers pull away from App. State

Minnesota sealed a 70-56 win against Appalachian State on Tuesday.

Junior forward Rodney Williams dunks in the first half against Appalachian State Tuesday at Williams Arena.

Erin Westover

Junior forward Rodney Williams dunks in the first half against Appalachian State Tuesday at Williams Arena.

Charlie Armitz

For 35 minutes Tuesday night against Appalachian State, the Gophers looked like the team many expected them to be following the loss of Trevor Mbakwe.

During the last five minutes, in which Minnesota sealed a 70-56 win with an 18-4 run, it looked more like the team that had found new life without its leader.

Rodney Williams had 18 points, six rebounds and five blocks as the Gophers (9-1) won their third consecutive game âÄî all of them at home, and all of them without Mbakwe.

âÄúWe needed every bucket and every rebound that he had,âÄù Gophers head coach Tubby Smith said of Williams. âÄúHe really played an outstanding game.âÄù

Williams had help from Ralph Sampson III, who returned to action for the first time since Nov. 27. Sampson had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench despite playing with a bad ankle.

Julian Welch, who had been the GophersâÄô leading scorer without Mbakwe, had an off-night with no assists and four turnovers but managed to score 15 points while extending his streak of consecutive free throws made to 23.

Welch, Chip Armelin and Joe Coleman broke down Appalachian StateâÄôs defense all night long. They combined to score 33 points, most of which came in the paint or at the free-throw line.

Minnesota had a 44-10 edge in points in the paint, but made just two of its six 3-point attempts.

Appalachian State (4-4) kept the game close with its 3-point shooting, which has been a problem area for MinnesotaâÄôs defense all season.

The Mountaineers shot 9-for-21 from deep, which included five 3-pointers from Rodney Milum and three from Omar Carter.

Six of Appalachian StateâÄôs 3-pointers came in the first half, which ended with Minnesota leading 32-30. CarterâÄôs last triple tied the score at 52-52 with 5:23 left in the game.

ThatâÄôs as close as the Gophers allowed it to get.

On the next possession, Williams drained a 3-pointer in the face of the defense; then, Armelin stole the ball, drove in for a layup, drew the foul and made the free throw.

In less than 20 seconds, Minnesota had turned a tie game into a 6-point lead âÄî a lead that the Mountaineers were unable to overcome.

âÄúI thought our kids made some adjustments at halftime to defend their threes better,âÄù Smith said. âÄúWe made a conscious effort to trap the shooter to get it out of his hands.âÄù

Smith also credited Williams, who earlier in the game made a turnaround fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expired, for making difficult shots in key moments.

âÄúThose were huge shots that we needed,âÄù Smith said. âÄúHe delivered âÄî whenever the bell rang, he answered it. IâÄôm really impressed with how heâÄôs matured.âÄù

Williams has averaged 14.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in his last three games âÄî similar numbers to those of Mbakwe.

He also seems to have adapted MbakweâÄôs style of scoring easy baskets off of screens and offensive rebounds. He had four offensive rebounds Tuesday and shot 8-for-10 from the field.

In his last three games, Williams has made 19 of 24 shots.