"He is a terrific player. He's bigger and stronger than our guys," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. "We got into foul trouble trying to keep him off the glass. He was just too much."
Mbakwe, who spent more than six minutes on the bench in the second half with three fouls, guided the Gophers through some anxious moments after he returned. They trailed by five points with less than six minutes left.
"We all looked at each other. We knew it was go time. We didn't want this game to be how last season went," Mbakwe said. "If we want to make the tournament, we have to finish these games out."
Austin Hollins scored 13 points for Minnesota and Ralph Sampson chipped in eight points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks before fouling out. Julian Welch added seven points, two assists, two steals and played solid perimeter defense in the second half.
Mbakwe took a beating underneath and spent much of the night on the floor, forcing him to ice his left wrist following the game. He finished 9 for 13 from the free-throw line and led the Gophers on a game-sealing 22-5 run.
Cameron Ayers sandwiched 3-pointers around a single 3-pointer by Bryan Cohen to give the Bison their biggest lead, 53-48 with less than six minutes left. Mbakwe and Hollins made sure that didn't stand, combining for the next 10 points.
Hollins tied the game at 53 on a 3-pointer that elicited excitement from the Williams Arena crowd with 4:55 remaining. Cohen fouled Hollins on a 3-pointer and fell and banged the back of his head on the floor, needing a towel to stop the bleeding. Hollins swished all three free throws and gave the Gophers some breathing room with 2:35 left.
"We kept our composure, regained our balance and made some shots," coach Tubby Smith said.
Defense enabled the Gophers to win the game as they held the Bison to 34.8 percent shooting from the floor and limited star Mike Muscala to 12 points and 11 rebounds in his home state. Bryson Johnson had 16 points on four 3-pointers, but they all came in the first half. Ayers added 13 points.
The Gophers had a pair of ragged exhibition wins over Division II teams in the region and they reminded their restless fans, who have yet to enjoy an NCAA tournament victory in almost five years with Smith, they have several flaws to address if they're going to compete in the Big Ten.
The Gophers didn't lack effort, but they went through several sloppy stretches throughout the game, failing to finish a bevy of layups or give the Bison any reason not to swarm Mbakwe with three defenders in the lane.
The Gophers finished 3 for 15 from 3-point range. They missed 12 free throws and went just 7 for 25 from the field in the second half.
"It's just a matter of keeping our confidence up. I know the shots are going to fall. We have some great shooters on our team," Hollins said.
Chip Armelin provided energy for the second team - Smith has long favored mass substitutions - and Elliott Eliason and Sampson played decent defense on Muscala, but the game had the look and feel of a season opener.
"There's nothing you can do but keep shooting it," Smith said.
The Bison brought back four starters from a team that went 25-9, losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to eventual national champion Connecticut. They were picked to win the Patriot League for a second straight year in the conference's preseason poll.
Muscala, a 6-foot-11 junior who played at Roseville High School just a few miles north of the Minnesota campus, missed his first four shots. He brought the Bison within 23-20 with 4:36 left before the break when the Gophers failed to box him out during a missed free throw and he went up for an easy tip-in, and his short jumper gave Bucknell its first lead, 35-33.
"It's good to be home and see familiar faces. I wish I would've played better for them," Muscala said.
The reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, Muscala will have to be on his game to help Bucknell to a strong start this season. The Bison have seven nonconference games against NCAA tournament teams from last year, including a trip to Vanderbilt on Tuesday and a game at Syracuse in December.
Former Ohio State head coach Randy Ayers sat behind the Bucknell bench to watch his son, Cameron Ayers. The sophomore starter, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, finished 4 for 9 from the floor.