This was why he came back for a sixth season. This was why he rehabbed a torn ACL in college rather than trying to turn pro. This is why he didn't give up after sitting out a full season because of off-the-court trouble.
For this moment.
Mbakwe dominated the highly touted Cody Zeller, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds to carry the Golden Gophers to a 77-73 victory over No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday night, the seventh time the top-ranked team in The Associated Press' poll has lost a game this season.
"It was a wonderful moment," he said. "I wanted to enjoy it as much as I could."
Mbakwe made 8 of 10 shots, all five free throws and grabbed six of Minnesota's 23 offensive rebounds to overwhelm the smaller Hoosiers and deliver perhaps the clincher on the Gophers' NCAA tournament resume.
Andre Hollins added 16 points and Elliott Eliason came through with seven points, five boards and some tough defense on Zeller, Indiana's projected top 10 draft pick.
Zeller had a quiet nine points, seven rebounds and was 2 for 9 from the field, completely outmatched by the Gophers' physical front line.
"That's a grown man," Indiana coach Tom Crean said of Mbakwe, who played for Crean at Marquette as a freshman way back in 2007-08. "That's one of the best rebounders in the country. ... He was the toughest guy on the court tonight."
The Gophers (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten) have never needed him more than they did Tuesday night.
Reeling from ugly losses to Iowa and Ohio State, Minnesota came into this showdown with its confidence shaken from a free fall that really started when they went into Bloomington ranked No. 8 in the country and lost to the Hoosiers.
Mbakwe knew his team needed some kind of boost, and boy did he give it to them in the first seven minutes. The burly big man attacked the glass and took the celebrated Zeller wherever he wanted to take him on the low block. He scored 10 of Minnesota's first 14 points and had a massive swat of Zeller on the other end as the Gophers took a 16-10 lead.
"I don't think I've played up to my potential lately," Mbakwe said. "I just wanted to come out and be aggressive. I don't think I've been aggressive as of late and really demand the ball."
But his inspired play came at a price. Looking winded, Tubby Smith subbed him out with just 6:26 gone, and that's when the Hoosiers made their move. It took them less than a minute to rip off a 10-0 run. Hulls hit a jumper and a 3-pointer, Victor Oladipo hit another 3 and Indiana raced ahead 20-16.
Smith went right back to Mbakwe, who hit a tough turnaround fadeaway on the baseline to slow things down, and he scored the first two baskets out of halftime as well to let the top-ranked team in the country know the Gophers weren't going to fade in the second half like they did against Iowa and Ohio State. His three-point play with 7:22 to play gave the Gophers a 56-52 lead and had The Barn shaking from the rafters to the court.
The Hoosiers (24-4, 12-3) would only regain the lead one more time the rest of the way. Oladipo scored 16 points, but 14 of the 17 points by Jordan Hulls came before halftime.
Joe Coleman's fast-break dunk with 2:35 left lifted Minnesota to a 68-61 edge, enough of a cushion to withstand a couple of 3-pointers by Christian Watford and one by Hulls in the closing minutes. As the seconds ticked down, Mbakwe exchanged high-5s with Rodney Williams and watched as the home crowd crept closer and closer to Williams Arena's famous raised court to celebrate.
Mbakwe joked that he's been in college "for an eternity," while he worked through a serious knee injury, two transfers and a painful lost season at Minnesota due to some legal issues off the court.
"He's been in college a long time and he's endured a lot," Crean said.
This season has been a fitting final one for him. The Gophers won 15 of the first 16 games before the loss to Indiana started a tailspin of seven defeats in 10 games that put them back on the bubble for the NCAA tournament field. Getting a win over the top-ranked team in the country can do a lot to instill the confidence that was severely lacking. And so can a court storming.
"It's great," Mbakwe said. "It's something you see on TV all the time and you always want that opportunity. We finally got one."
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