Playing together in the post for the first time in their college career, Mbakwe and Williams are turning into quite the pair for the 13th-ranked Gophers.
Williams scored a season-high 19 points, including a 360-degree dunk off a fast break, and Mbakwe grabbed a career-best 18 rebounds in 21 minutes to lead Minnesota past North Dakota State 70-57 on Tuesday night.
"Rodney's a threat because there's not many '4' men as athletic as him, with his skill set. There aren't many people as strong as Trev. It makes life easier for a point guard," a smiling Andre Hollins said.
Hollins added 11 points for the Gophers (11-1), who have won 16 straight games in this series since losing in 1936.
Mbakwe scored 14 points himself, and Bison coach Saul Phillips, at the podium for his postgame interview, joked that the sixth-year senior added five more rebounds on his way upstairs. Back from surgery, but still coming off the bench, Mbakwe is rounding into form.
"He's learning to develop other phases, other parts of his game, other than just sheer power," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "Sometimes you do that out of necessity, and I think that's what he's learning to do."
The improvement Williams has made since his sophomore season is remarkable, and he has Mbakwe to thank for part of it, since he switched from small forward to power forward to fill in when Mbakwe was hurt. Except for a two-point aberration last week against South Dakota State, Williams has scored at least 12 in every game this season. His outside shot is much better than it used to be, as he proved several times on this night when the driving lanes weren't there.
"He's a great player. Every year he adds more to it. He's playing with a lot of confidence," Mbakwe said. "He just takes pressure off me. Teams aren't able to lock in on us, because they have to respect the other guy. We feed off each other pretty well."
The Bison (8-3) were overwhelmed down the stretch by Mbakwe's muscle and the athleticism of Williams, and they never came closer than nine points after halftime. They had only four turnovers over the last 23 minutes of the game, but they couldn't knock down enough shots to keep pace, finishing 7 of 20 from 3-point range.
The Gophers, whose only loss was to No. 2 Duke, host Lafayette on Dec. 22, their last game before the Big Ten season.
"Trev's intensity has definitely picked up. He's been stepping up in big games when we need him to, like he used to," Williams said.
Lawrence Alexander led the Bison with 19 points, and Taylor Braun added 15 points. Braun, who won two of the past three Summit League Player of the Week awards, fouled out with 3:57 left on a pump-fake power move by Mbakwe for a layup and three-point play.
"That's a change. They're a lot bigger and a little stronger than we're used to," said Marshall Bjorklund, who had 12 points for the Bison.
The Bison were more competitive than in their visit to No. 1 Indiana on Nov. 12, an 87-61 loss, but they weren't able to hang with the Gophers the way they did last year in outrebounding the bigger Big Ten foe and falling 63-59. NDSU has beaten Minnesota twice in football since 2007, but basketball hasn't brought the same success for the Bison against the only major conference school for hundreds of miles.
NDSU fell to 2-4 against nationally ranked opponents. The Bison beat Wisconsin and Marquette in 2006.
Minnesota didn't lead by more than four points until 5:36 was left in the first half, when Williams turned a steal into an uncontested fast break and the aforementioned fancy slam, the third 360 of his career, according to the Gophers.
"I almost broke my back afterward, so maybe next time just lay it up," Williams said.
Smith received a plaque from athletic director Norwood Teague and pats on the shoulder from his players before the game in honor of his 500th career victory, achieved on Saturday at USC. He didn't look interested in the pregame fuss, and he wasn't happy with his team's early performance, either. After one turnover by Joe Coleman, Smith leaped from his courtside stool and angrily kicked at the air.
But the Gophers kept their cool and pulled away before the break. Hollins, on his 20th birthday, swished a couple of 3-pointers in the last 80 seconds to stretch the lead to 37-26. In between, Mbakwe jumped in the lane for a rebound and threw it down for a dunk in the same motion.
"Your margin for error against a team that good isn't that big, and in 75 seconds we managed to decrease our margin for error by a great deal," Phillips said.
Smith decided to play rather than redshirt shooting guard Wally Ellenson, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Rice Lake, Wis., who broke his left hand in practice before the season started. Ellenson made a free throw in 4 minutes in his debut.