Sampson III exits the Barn on a high note

March 3, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Midway through the second half of Saturday's game at Williams Arena, the public address announcer informed the Gophers fans that Trevor Mbakwe was named the Sub of the Game. Mbakwe didn't play Saturday — he hasn't since he tore his ACL on Nov. 27 — but it was a nice gesture for the injured senior.

The announcement elicited a standing ovation for Mbakwe, who along with teammate Ralph Sampson III were honored Saturday on Senior Day as the Gophers defeated visiting Nebraska 81-69.

Unless Mbakwe is granted another year of eligibility and opts to return next season, it was his final game at Williams Arena. And it was bittersweet, no doubt, after having to watch his team's victory from the bench, as he's been relegated to doing since the knee injury.

"I think it means a lot for him," Sampson said of his fellow senior Mbakwe. "Him going down early in the season and for the team to come around him and for him to be recognized tonight by the fans and see how the fans reacted to him as he came out, it showed him the support he still had and how people were still excited for him."

It was also the final game on the raised Williams Arena floor for Sampson, unless Minnesota hosts an early-round game in the NIT Tournament. He scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and had five assists in Saturday's win. It was Sampson's first double-digit scoring effort since Feb. 1, a span of seven games in which he scored under 10 points.

Late last month in a loss at Wisconsin, Sampson surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career. In doing so, he joined former Gophers Kevin McHale, Randy Breuer, Mychal Thompson and Michael Bauer as the only players in team history to score 1,000 points, grab 500 rebounds and record 150 blocks.

As Sampson walked off the Williams Arena court for what was likely the last time, he stopped to take pictures with his sisters, Rachel and Anna, before heading down to the Gophers' locker room. His father, Ralph Sampson II, was also in attendance and posed with his son before the game as Sampson III was given a framed No. 50 jersey.

When Sampson checked out of Saturday's game for good with 59.8 seconds remaining, he received a standing ovation from the Minnesota faithful. It's a fan base that has been hot and cold on Sampson throughout his career, but they gave the Duluth, Ga., native a nice hand as he made his exit.

"I enjoyed my last game here at the Barn," Sampson said. "The fans were great. My family came out, so I had the support there. I think the team pulled together well. We played a good game and ended up with the win. I couldn't ask for anything more."

Sampson began his Gophers career during the 2008-09 season and averaged 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a freshman. Prior to Saturday's 12-point, five-rebound effort, Sampson was averaging 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

While he had his most productive year as a junior — 10.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 63 blocks in 31 games — Sampson was still praised by his coach for his steady play throughout his four-year career.

"Ralph's consistency and continuity, he's been the guy that's been with us the whole four years," coach Tubby Smith said. "Through it all, he's been very positive and very consistent, and I appreciate that."

Mbakwe's road to Senior Day was a bit more winding than the path Sampson took. After enrolling at Marquette as a freshman, Mbakwe transferred to Miami Dade Community College for his sophomore season.  After then transferring home to Minnesota, the St. Paul native redshirted the 2009-10 season before his breakout year last year. As a junior, Mbakwe averaged 13.9 points and a conference-best 10.5 rebounds per game.

But his senior campaign lasted just seven games, as he tore his ACL on Nov. 27 in a game against Dayton. Before the injury, Mbakwe was averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds — both team highs. Minnesota missed his scoring and rebounding once Big Ten play rolled around, as Saturday's win put the Gophers at 6-12 in conference play.

Whether or not it was indeed Mbakwe's last game, he was able to enjoy one last Gophers victory at home — albeit as a spectator.

"I'm happy that we were able to send Ralph off with a win, and Trevor off with a win as well," Smith said. "Those kids have been very good for our program."

There was also speculation that Saturday might have been the final game at Williams Arena for junior Rodney Williams, who could entertain the thought of entering the NBA Draft after this season. But the athletic Williams — who had a few highlight-reel dunks en route to his 16-point effort Saturday — put those rumors to rest when asked if Saturday was his final game at the Barn as well.

Said a smiling Williams: "Nah, you'll be seeing a lot more of me."

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