Minnesota’s seniors go out in style in rout

MINNEAPOLIS — The chants rang from the Williams Arena student section on Saturday, directed at the Gophers’ most integral seniors.

First, Minnesota’s students chanted “One more year!” at forward Trevor Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior who has gone through plenty during his time on campus. As Mbakwe left the court with 3:41 to play, he was met by a standing ovation before he hugged coach Tubby Smith.

A few minutes later, the students once again began a senior-aimed chant. This time, Rodney Williams was the target. Williams has become a fan favorite over the years for his high-flying dunks. Naturally, the students begged him for an encore, chanting “One more dunk!”

Williams didn’t get the chance, but he and the Gophers did get a comfortable 73-44 win over Penn State on Senior Day to give Minnesota 20 wins for the season. Fittingly, the Gophers’ four seniors played a key role in the victory. Mbakwe scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, Williams added 10 points and seven boards, senior guard Julian Welch had 10 points along with seven assists and Andre Ingram added four points and three rebounds.

Given the one-sided nature of Saturday’s game, Gophers coach Tubby Smith was able to take each senior off the court one at a time late in the game to allow the home crowd to acknowledge all four of them. It only added to what was already an emotional day for Minnesota’s seniors.

“Senior Day definitely meant a lot to me. We wanted to come out here and play hard after the Indiana win,” Williams said, referring to his team’s upset of the No. 1 Hoosiers on Tuesday. “It was real heartwarming, having it be the last game playing here at the Barn. Just to get the love and appreciation from the fans, that really meant a lot to me. I’m glad I was here these four years. I wouldn’t want to play in front of any other fans.”

Williams didn’t get that final dunk fans were cheering for, but he did add another to his already impressive highlight reel late in the first half. The 6-foot-7 Williams took an errant lob pass from Welch, snatched it out of the air with his left hand and hammered it home.

The alley-oop gave the Gophers a 34-12 halftime lead and left Minnesota’s fans — and players — in awe one final time.

“I can’t even explain it. That was ridiculous,” Mbakwe said. “I hope that’s No. 1 on SportsCenter tonight.”

Even Smith, normally not one to ooh and aah at dunks, knew that Williams’ final highlight-reel slam was special.

“He’s spectacular when it comes to that type of stuff,” Smith said. “He just has another gear that most athletes don’t have.”

The other seniors had their moments, too, albeit not quite as flashy as Williams’ dunk. Welch scored the Gophers’ first five points of the game, including a 3-pointer in the corner to open the scoring. Ingram followed suit with a baseline jumper, igniting Minnesota to an early 7-0 lead.

The duo of Welch and Ingram both came to campus last year as junior college transfers — Ingram from Butler Community College, Welch from UC Davis and Yuba Community College. They haven’t received the same minutes or recognition that fellow seniors Mbakwe and Williams have, but they each had their moment to shine Saturday.

“It was great, just a great feeling to be out there and see my teammates smiling, me smiling, everything was going great for us,” said Welch, who didn’t play at all in Minnesota’s win over Indiana.

Welch’s playing time has decreased since last year, when he played 24.7 minutes per game. As a senior, he’s averaging just 18.5 minutes per game, partially due to the emergence of fellow point guard Andre Hollins.

“It’s always tough when a senior, a junior college transfer, the expectations are to play a lot more,” Smith said. “But he showed a lot of character in stepping up today and playing. I’ve got a lot more confidence in him now.”

Mbakwe closed out his final game at Williams Arena with yet another double-double, something Gophers fans have grown accustomed to seeing from him over the years. His 13 points led Minnesota, and he perhaps made a case to become the Big Ten Player of the Week after his 21-point effort against Indiana.

It’s been a whirlwind of a college career for Mbakwe, the St. Paul native who began playing at Marquette before transferring to Miami Dade Community College and then back home to Minnesota. He tore his ACL before the Big Ten season last year, allowing him to come back for a sixth and final season.

The Gophers fans, however, were hoping for a seventh year from Mbakwe.

“I’ve got to sprain an ankle or something and hope I get another year from the NCAA,” he joked. “This season went by so fast. Four years, it seemed like forever, but it went by so fast. There were a lot of emotions, especially since it’s been up and down for me. … It was great to see the crowd, the ovation that they gave us. I’m going to remember that for a long time.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.