Mbakwe, Walker return in exhibition win

The Gophers beat Minnesota State-Mankato 81-56 on Thursday at Williams Arena.

Minnesota guard Joe Coleman makes a basket against Southwest Baptist on Thursday night at Williams Arena. Coleman led the game in scoring.

Mark Vancleave

Minnesota guard Joe Coleman makes a basket against Southwest Baptist on Thursday night at Williams Arena. Coleman led the game in scoring.

by Andrew Krammer

Senior Trevor Mbakwe and sophomore Maurice Walker, both returning from knee surgeries, were all smiles after the Gophers’ 81-56 exhibition win over Minnesota State-Mankato.

The two were limited to a combined 20 minutes at Williams Arena on Thursday night, yet those minutes exemplified the relief both men felt to finally get back on the court.

Mbakwe didn’t enter the game until 12 minutes remained in the first half, but he received an ovation from the announced crowd of 8,907.

“[It] was heartwarming,” Mbakwe said. “I’m thankful Gopher nation has been accepting through my ups and downs of my career.”

The St. Paul native made both of his field goals, scoring four points, and added three rebounds in 11 minutes as Minnesota dominated in the paint.

Walker, who had eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, played for the first time since December 2010 and moved around well against a small Mavericks team.

“I thought I was out a long time — [Walker’s] been out a super long time,” Mbakwe said. “He’s going to be big for us this year.”

The Gophers outscored the Mavericks 58-16 in the paint thanks to sophomore guard Joe Coleman’s 21 points.

“Coleman was just outstanding,” coach Tubby Smith said. “He played so hard. He and Austin [Hollins] both had good nights.”

Coleman did his damage on layups, making eight of his 10 shots.

He also made all five of the Gophers’ free throws and was the only player to score in double digits for Minnesota. 

Coleman, Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2011, insisted he’s still a guard, despite looking at home as a small forward.

“Tonight I didn’t have to pull up for a jumper because the lane was open and I took what the defense gave me,” Coleman said.

Shooting guard Austin Hollins led the team with nine assists and looked comfortable passing the ball to whoever was on the court. Smith spread out the minutes evenly among his 12 available players.

Only three Gophers players didn’t have double-digit minutes; Walker was limited to nine minutes.

Starting point guard Andre Hollins only played five minutes in the first half and ended up with four points and no assists.

Turnovers, rebounding and free throws were areas Smith said he wanted to see improvement, but he didn’t.

Minnesota owned the paint, but it had only a 36-30 rebounding advantage along with 14 turnovers.

The Mavericks had a 14-9 edge on the offensive glass.

The Gophers’ two best players – Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe – did not play together Thursday. Williams said it was a product of “just how it happened,” but both played the power forward position when they were in the game.

Mbakwe said he’d be ready to start tomorrow if Smith needed him to, but he said he’s fine coming off the bench for now.

“I’m happy just being on the team,” Mbakwe said.

Tyus visits locker room

Minnesota wasn’t just playing to impress its fans. Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones, the nation’s top 2014 recruit at point guard, was in attendance and went down to the Gophers locker room after the game.

Jones also attended the Gophers’ loss to Michigan State at Williams Arena in February.