Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 12/6/11
MINNEAPOLIS Ralph Sampson III wasn't in the Gophers' starting lineup Tuesday against Appalachian State, but the senior center made his return to the court after missing two games with an ankle injury.Sampson grabbed five rebounds and scored 10 points in 19 minutes, including four points in the game's final 1:27 of Minnesota's 70-56 win over the Mountaineers.It was Sampson's first game back since Nov. 27 against Dayton. He missed the Gophers' games against Virginia Tech and USC with an ankle injury. And while he still isn't 100 percent yet, Sampson was able to contribute to Minnesota's victory."He's about 75 percent right now. He's making progress slowly but surely," said Gophers forward Rodney Williams, who led Minnesota with 18 points. "He actually played pretty well tonight, too. He got some key rebounds for us and he actually got some dunks out there on that bad wheel."Sampson warmed up before the Gophers' game against USC on Saturday but never saw the court. Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said he wanted to ease Sampson back into action, which is why the senior came off the bench Tuesday."He's a much better player at 100 percent. He needs to get to be 100 percent," Smith said. "We need 100 percent out of him going forward, and that's why we kept him out of playing for so long."Sampson checked into the game with 11:51 remaining in the first half and Minnesota leading Appalachian State 13-8. After the Mountaineers hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead, Sampson responded with a jumper, his first points in three games.Shortly after that, Sampson had a dunk to put the Gophers up by three. He also closed out the game with a dunk in the final seconds, showing that his ankle is feeling much better after two games of rest."That was the first time I've seen him dunk the ball since his ankle's been hurting. That was good," Smith said. "He's getting his spring back and getting his strength back. He made some wise decisions out there with the ball with two assists. He did a fantastic job."The Gophers will need a healthy Sampson when Big Ten play starts, and they know it. Minnesota is already without leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe, who is out for the season after tearing his ACL in the Gophers' game against Dayton late last month. With Mbakwe and Sampson out for the past two games, Williams has carried the load offensively after moving to power forward.Sampson averaged 5.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game before his injury. While those numbers are down from his output a year ago (10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game), he'll still be a big key for an otherwise inexperienced Gophers squad once Big Ten play begins later this month."It means a lot just to have a team captain back," said point guard Julian Welch, who scored 15 in Tuesday's win. "Rodney said it best, he's a real good player. Hopefully he'll be 100 percent before Big Ten."Minnesota now has three games remaining St. Peters, Central Michigan and North Dakota State before opening the Big Ten schedule at Illinois. The Gophers hope Sampson's return to the floor Tuesday means he'll be ready to go on Dec. 27."It's important for him to get his wind back and him to get his stamina and get the chemistry," Smith said. "It's important that he get his timing, get his wind. I'm sure he's going to be a little bit sore, but we have off (Wednesday) and see how it goes."Still struggling to defend the 3 It's been an issue all season for Minnesota, and it was a glaring problem in the first half of Tuesday's game: The Gophers have a hard time guarding the 3-point shot.Prior to its game against Appalachian State, Minnesota allowed opponents to shoot 38.3 percent from downtown, second-worst in all the Big Ten. Only Penn State (38.4 percent) struggled more to defend the three.In the first half Tuesday, the Mountaineers were 6-for-10 from downtown, including a 4-for-5 effort by guard Rodney Milum. But things changed after halftime, as Appalachian State was just 3-of-11 from 3-point range after the break Milum made just one of four attempts in the second half."I just think they made a conscious effort to get up there," Smith said of his team's defense. "We started to come out a little bit higher on the pick and roll. They were getting a lot of those threes behind the screen, so we made a conscious effort to really come out and almost trap the shooter to try to get it out of his hands."The nine 3-pointers made by Appalachian State was the second-most for a Gophers opponent this season. Dayton made 12 versus Minnesota in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic, which the Gophers lost 86-70.
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