Wrapping up a second straight struggle of a Big Ten season, Sampson and the Gophers finally showed some smiles. There's always that shot at the conference tournament, and they expressed confidence in their capability of a couple of upsets next week.
Chip Armelin scored a career-high 20 points with seven rebounds, Rodney Williams had 16 points, eight rebounds and three crowd-pleasing dunks and Minnesota stopped a six-game losing streak with an 81-69 victory over Nebraska on Saturday.
"We still have the feeling here about making that run," said Sampson, who on Senior Appreciation Day finished with 12 points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocks, no turnovers and a wave to the crowd when he was taken out with a minute left and hugged by coach Tubby Smith. "We know exactly what to do."
Bo Spencer scored all 23 of his points in the second half, making 7 of 12 3-pointers, but that wasn't enough for the Huskers (12-17, 4-14), who finished their first Big Ten season with eight losses in their last nine games. Dylan Talley added 16 points.
When Sampson was a sophomore and Williams was a freshman, the Gophers won three straight games to reach the conference championship and grab a spot in the NCAA tournament. They'll likely have to do the same, if not win the whole thing, to get in this year after going 6-12 in conference play for a second straight season.
Winning for the first time since a 69-61 decision Feb. 5 at Nebraska, the Gophers raised their record to 18-13 and dodged the ignominy of finishing last in the Big Ten. They'll be the No. 10 seed for next week's tournament and will play Northwestern.
Sampson never played up to his NBA star father's level, his slow, deliberate post moves and skinny 6-foot-11 frame often exploited by the aggressive, muscular defenders in the conference. But he still became only the fifth player in program history to reach at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 blocks. Sampson called the ovation from the crowd during his exit "heartwarming" and said he was so excited before the game with his family in attendance that he almost had an asthma attack.
"It's always a treat and a thrill to coach guys who do the things you ask them to do," said Smith.
He praised Sampson's work ethic by adding: "I expect to be coaching him for a few more games."
Williams woke up sleepy Williams Arena during this brunch-time matchup with a poster-perfect slam over Brandon Ubel's head when he drove into the lane and stretched his long arm to get the Gophers within 13-11. They took the lead a few minutes after that during a 20-4 run and were ahead for almost all of the last 29 minutes of the game.
"The coaches have been telling me to just go straight up with it, and that's what I did," Williams said, grinning.
Williams, whom Smith has criticized for not being aggressive enough to maximize his exceptional athleticism, dunked a lob pass from Sampson a little later. Then in the second half he dribbled in from half-court and took off from the edge of the lane for another slam. Huskers coach Doc Sadler was impressed.
"You'd think he'd end up with 40 because those 16 points are usually plays that are exciting," Sadler said.
Armelin and Austin Hollins each hit three 3-pointers in the first half for the Gophers. Hollins had 13 points, five assists and three of Minnesota's eight steals, and the Gophers had five players score in double digits for only the second time all season. They had 23 assists, their most in any Big Ten game this season.
Sadler fell to 101-88 at Nebraska in six seasons. He called his first foray in the Big Ten a fulfillment of a dream to coach against revered peers like Smith and Tom Izzo, but the results weren't pretty.
"The one thing that you can control is not dropping your chin, and that's hard," Sadler said. "I understand that. But you've got to learn not to do that."
Spencer, who has made the most of his only season with the Huskers after transferring from LSU, was held to 10 points over the last two games and attempted only one shot in the first half in this one after picking up two fouls in the first 47 seconds.
"It's been tough for us," he said. "I've enjoyed my time since I've been here at Nebraska. It's been a good road for me. I think we're a lot better than what our standings show."
Toney McCray had 14 points for the Huskers, who harbor their own hopes of being the Big Ten tournament surprise.
"That's all there is to it," McCray said. "We've got to go win it."