Paint presence felt in season opening win

Led by junior Ralph Sampson’s game-high 20 points and 13 rebounds, the Gophers defeated Wofford 69-55 at Williams Arena Friday night in the regular-season opener.

Gophers senior guard Al Nolen maneuvers around Warriors sophomore guard Xavier Humphrey Monday night at Williams Arena.

Mark Vancleave

Gophers senior guard Al Nolen maneuvers around Warriors sophomore guard Xavier Humphrey Monday night at Williams Arena.

by John Hageman

The Gophers had the height and strength, and they didnâÄôt need much else. Displaying depth and aggressiveness in the post, the Gophers opened the regular season with a 69-55 home win over Wofford on Friday night. The Gophers started off slow and found themselves down 5-7 after a sloppy first four minutes but went on a 14-2 run coming out of the first timeout. Wofford never came within six points for the rest of the game. Minnesota outmuscled Wofford, which nearly upset Wisconsin as a No. 13 seed in last yearâÄôs NCAA tournament. The Gophers scored 32 points in the paint along with 12 points off offensive rebounds. âÄúWe have the bulk and size that you need to compete at the highest level,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúAnd we have some depth.âÄù Junior Ralph Sampson led the way with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Sampson seemed more aggressive in the paint than in the past and went to the free-throw line a game-high eight times. His jump shot was also effective, and he even hit a three-pointer (just the second of his career) in the first half that sent the crowd into a frenzy. He attributed his toughness in the post to the size the Gophers have added around him. âÄúI feel a lot more free,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúSo now teams not only have to focus on me and Colton [Iverson], we also have a very athletic and aggressive Trevor Mbakwe now to watch out for.âÄù Mbakwe had 14 points and 10 rebounds coming off the bench in his first regular-season game with the Gophers. He gave the crowd and himself something to cheer for when he dunked his first career points with two hands just seconds after coming into the game. Another two-handed slam broke the TerriersâÄô full-court press at the end of the game and seemed to deflate the mid-major powerhouse. Mbakwe sat out last year due to legal troubles and said he felt like a new person competing with the team Friday. âÄúLast year was really tough. IâÄôve been playing basketball my whole life, and having that taken from me, itâÄôs different,âÄù Mbakwe said. âÄú[I was] practicing with the team, and then on game days, IâÄôm in a suit and tie âĦ IâÄôm just glad that everythingâÄôs over with and I can focus on the future.âÄù Freshman Maurice Walker struggled with ball control all night, but provided some defensive presence in the post. Sampson referred to the 6-foot-10-inch, 289-pound Walker as a wall to Wofford players attempting to drive past him. Iverson and senior Al Nolen added eight points each, and although senior Blake Hoffarber shot just 1-for-4 from the floor, he led the team with six assists. The Gophers shot just 3-for-15 from behind the arc, but Smith said the shooting woes may lie in the postsâÄô reluctance to swing the ball back to the perimeter. âÄúWeâÄôve been very conscious of throwing the ball inside, and I donâÄôt think weâÄôre doing a very good job of throwing it back out,âÄù Smith said. âÄúYou got to find a balance.âÄù While Hoffarber struggled, the Gophers found a spark off the bench in freshman guard Chip Armelin, who scored 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting in just 12 minutes on the floor. Smith said Armelin gave the Gophers some added depth while Devoe Joseph continues to serve a suspension for a violation of team rules. Partway through the second half, Smith put in a new set consisting of four freshmen and Mbakwe, all of whom were playing in their first regular-season game as Gophers. Smith said he liked what he saw out of the freshmen and that they are getting comfortable playing with each other. âÄúIâÄôm really impressed with all of our freshmen,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThey know that I trust and believe in them, and when they get an opportunity, they play extremely hard.âÄù The Gophers will look for the same relative consistency when they host Siena on Monday night.