MINNEAPOLIS - Senior forward Trevor Mbakwe took on a new role for the Gopher men's basketball team on Wednesday night - spectator - and he watched as his teammates held on for a 58-55 win against Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Mbakwe, Minnesota's leading scorer and rebounder through the team's first seven games and a preseason All-America selection, tore the ACL in his right knee on Sunday versus Dayton and will miss the remainder of the season. So, tonight, he sat on the bench and did what he could to support his teammates from a new vantage point.
Junior forward Julian Welch, making his first career start for the Gophers after transferring from Yuba Community College, led Minnesota with 15 points, including four clutch free throws in the final 20 seconds that turned a 54-53 deficit into the final margin of victory. Junior forward Rodney Williams was 6-for-7 from the field, finishing with 14 points and a game-high eight rebounds.
The win by the Gophers helped the Big Ten clinch the annual battle between the conferences, as it allowed the Big Ten to go 4-2 in the series for the second night in a row and finish 8-4. It marks the second consecutive year the Big Ten has captured the Commissioner's Cup, as the Big Ten went 7-4 in 2010.
Minnesota (7-1) jumped out to an early lead, with freshman guard Andre Hollins scoring four points to help give Minnesota an 8-0 edge and forcing Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg to call a quick timeout.
Early on, the Gophers played tough at the defensive end of the floor, holding Virginia Tech to just 6-of-22 (.273) field goals and forcing eight turnovers in the first 15 minutes to build their lead to seven points, 20-13.
But the Hokies (5-2) closed the gap over the final five minutes of the half, and took their first lead, 26-25, on a three-point play by junior guard Erick Green with 1:27 remaining in the half. Green led all scorers with 12 first-half points, while freshman guard Robert Brown came off the bench to make two three-pointers and tally eight points.
Minnesota opened the second half with a quick 4-0 run to retake a 29-28 lead, and the teams then battled back-and-forth, exchanging the lead five times until sophomore guard Chip Armelin scored to give the Gophers a 35-32 edge with 14:28 remaining.
Welch, who had five points in the first half, scored six points during a critical stretch to help the Gophers re-establish a 46-40 lead. Armelin added five points during that run.
The Hokies regained the lead by going on a 13-5 run to turn Minnesota's six-point lead into a 53-51 edge for the visitors with just 2:49 left. Green had five points and Brown added four during that stretch.
But Williams made a free throw and then got free in the lane for a dunk with 1:54 remaining to give the Gophers a 54-53 lead. Green answered with a field goal with 23 seconds remaining to put the Hokies on top by one, 55-54. But Welch cemented the win for the Gophers by calmly sinking four free throws.
Armelin finished with nine points, while Eliason had eight points and seven rebounds.
Green recorded a game-high 25 points for the Hokies, making 9-of-18 field goals, including 4-of-8 from three-point range. But he missed a running three-point attempt that would have tied the game at the buzzer. Brown added 13 points, while Victor Davila added 10 points and seven boards for the Hokies.
The Gophers will remain home to play host to USC on Saturday afternoon at 1:15 p.m. (CT). That game will be televised live on the Big Ten Network.