MINNEAPOLIS No Trevor Mbakwe or Ralph Sampson III? No problem for the University of Minnesota men's basketball team.
Well, for one night, at least.
With Mbakwe out for the season after tearing his ACL on Sunday and Sampson nursing a sprained ankle, the Gophers were left without their two senior leaders and starting post players. But on Wednesday against Virginia Tech in the Big TenACC Challenge, Minnesota didn't need them. The Gophers had Rodney Williams, Elliott Eliason and Julian Welch to pick up the slack.Williams had 14 points and eight rebounds, Eliason added eight points, seven boards and two blocks and Welch had a team-high 15 points to lift the Gophers to a 58-55 win at Williams Arena."It took a full team effort," Williams said. "Once we heard Trev was going down and we came to practice the next day and we found out that Ralph wouldn't be playing either, everybody just kind of took it upon themselves to get two really good days of practice in. We came out ready today."Mbakwe was the Gophers' leading scorer and rebounder. A year ago, he led the Big Ten in rebounds (10.5 per game). Sampson was second on the team in rebounds this season, so Minnesota needed someone to step up and crash the boards with both players out.Early on, it was Eliason. The 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman grabbed five rebounds and scored four points in the first half. He averaged just 9.3 minutes per game prior to Wednesday, but was on the floor for 32 minutes against the Hokies. Both his point and rebound totals were season highs."He had a solid game," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "He hustles. He's flailing around out there. He's just always around the basket. He's a good player, a good decision maker.""Big E, he's been working hard all season and all summer he worked hard as well," Williams said of Eliason. "Going up against Trevor every day in practice, that definitely helps. Everybody has been telling (Elliott) since Trevor went out, we need him to step up too because he's our next-biggest player. As long as we just keep our confidence in Elliott, I think he's going play well like that every game."Williams, meanwhile, stepped up his game as well. With the team's two veterans watching from the bench, Williams not only contributed on the stat sheet but also through his leadership. While an enthusiastic Mbakwe in street clothes was cheering on his team, Williams assumed Mbakwe's role as court general. He also had one of the biggest plays of the night, a dunk with under two minutes to play that gave Minnesota a 54-53 lead and elicited a roar from the Gopher faithful."My teammates have full confidence in me. They've been telling me since we got back from Orlando that this is my time, that I really need to step up now," Williams said. "We lost our best player. It's going to take a full team effort, but in order for us to be successful, I've really got to step up to try my best to fill Trevor's role."Williams rotated to power forward in Wednesday's game, a position he said he played in high school. He's been predominately a small forward with the Gophers, but he seemed to thrive in his new role. Playing closer to the basket, Williams was able to find easier shots, including several layups and a put-back dunk en route to his 14-point night."He seemed very comfortable," Smith said. "He wasn't settling for jump shots. He was attacking the rim. And our guys did a good job of looking for him."No Mbakwe and no Sampson meant Welch received his first start as a Gopher. A junior college transfer who played his freshman season at UC Davis, Welch played 32 minutes and sank four free throws in the final minute to ice the game for Minnesota."That's why we recruited him," Smith said of Welch. "He's a very mature kid. I thought he stepped up. He's a calming effect.""Before the game, I thought it really lifted us up when we saw Trevor come and give us a little speech," Welch said. "We just wanted to dedicate the game to him and Ralph."The speech remains a team secret, but Smith knows that Mbakwe can still be an influential presence to his teammates despite the injury."He's always talking. Trevor's a talker and a texter and a tweeter," Smith said. "He's got something to say. I'm sure he said the right things, because Trevor's very mature, very sincere when he talks. He's a good communicator, and the kids respect him and look up to him."