Mbakwe and Walker Return for Gophers

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By Michael Molde

The longer you miss someone, the more you appreciate it when they return. For fans of Golden Gopher men's basketball, it's been far too long since senior forward Trevor Mbakwe and sophomore forward Maurice Walker have played in a game.

Both players, of course, made appearances in each of Minnesota's two exhibitions during the past couple weeks. But, officially, tonight's 72-36 season-opening win against American University marked the first time in what has seemed like ages that the pair of Gopher big men had donned a Maroon and Gold uniform.
Go Gophers! Trevor Mbakwe
Go Gophers!
Trevor Mbakwe made his return to the court Friday night against American University.
Go Gophers!

For Mbakwe, tonight's game was his first since tearing the ACL in his right knee during an 86-70 loss to Dayton on Nov. 27, 2011. The wait for Walker's return has been even longer, as he had not played for the Gophers since tearing the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee versus South Dakota State on Dec. 23, 2010.

The 6-foot-8 Mbakwe entered the game to a rousing ovation with 7:59 remaining in the first half. He played 14 minutes, finishing with four points, three rebounds, two steals, and two blocked shots. And, for those who stayed around long enough, Mbakwe's alley-oop dunk on an assist from Chris Halvorsen with 1:39 left in the game might have been the highlight of the night.

A potential National Basketball Association draftee, Mbakwe hopes to return to the form he displayed during his junior season and in the first seven games last season. He led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior, pulling down 10.5 boards per game to go along with a scoring average of 13.9 ppg. Last year, he earned preseason all-Big Ten honors and was averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest before the injury.

Walker is an imposing presence at 6-foot-10, 289 pounds. He averaged 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game during the 12 games he played in 2010-11.

Like Mbakwe, he entered the game to an extended roar from the crowd of 10,172, and he saw limited action. Walker scored four points, grabbed a pair of rebounds, dished out an assist, and blocked a shot during his nine minutes on the floor.

Mbakwe commented after the game about how fun it was to have Big Mo back on the court.

"It was great. He's been working hard for the last year and a half," Mbakwe said. "I'm happier about his comeback than mine. He's been through a lot. It was great to see him out there, the crowd gave him a big ovation and he's going to be big for us this year."

As for his own return, and how long it might take him to get back to full strength, Mbakwe added, "I don't know, I think it's just a confidence thing, trusting my knee, and knowing that the doctors did a great job. I think now, conditioning is the biggest part. My knee is fine, it doesn't hurt at all."

If that's the case, Gophers fans are going to be happy campers this season.

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