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Published December 22, 2011, 10:31 PM

Sampson, Gophers edge North Dakota State 63-59

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips watched his Bison go toe-to-toe with Minnesota on its home floor, then practically begged Tubby Smith to bring his Golden Gophers to Fargo for a game someday.

By: JON KRAWCZYNSKI, WDAY

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips watched his Bison go toe-to-toe with Minnesota on its home floor, then practically begged Tubby Smith to bring his Golden Gophers to Fargo for a game someday.

"I'll cook for them," Phillips said.

Is that enough, Tubby?

"No that's going to be enough," Smith cracked. "Is he going to cook Bison meat?"

After nearly getting cooked themselves on Thursday night, it was easy to see why the Golden Gophers would be so reluctant.

Ralph Sampson III had 15 points, six rebounds and four blocks and Rodney Williams added 14 points and eight boards to lift Minnesota to a 63-59 victory over plucky North Dakota State.

Maverick Ahanmisi added 13 points and three steals for the Golden Gophers (12-1), who hung on despite missing nine free throws and being outrebounded 39-28.

"I'm so impressed with their team, watching them on film and watching them attack the basket," Smith said. "They've got a good all-around team."

The Bison football team — which will play for the FCS championship next month — has beaten the Gophers twice in recent years, and the basketball team nearly pulled off another stunner.

Taylor Braun had 13 points and 11 rebounds and Dylan Hale scored 13 for the Bison (8-3). North Dakota State turned the ball over 14 times, which kept them from completing what would have been an impressive upset.

"Certainly an improvement from the Bison teams you've seen here in the past in terms of effort on this particular night," said Phillips, who has been on the NDSU bench as an assistant or head coach for the previous five meetings at Williams in which the Bison lost by an average of 18.4 points. "Still feels hollow. Losing stinks. There's no way around it."

Minnesota has struggled all season at the free-throw line, but Sampson came through when the Gophers needed it most. He made 7 of 8 shots from the line, including two with less than 14 seconds to play that iced the victory.

This was the last pre-Big Ten tuneup for the Gophers, who got a lot more than they bargained for from the Division I newcomers from Fargo.

Down 14-2 early, Minnesota climbed back into it with some strong pressure defense to take a 32-29 lead at the half. The Gophers looked to be pulling away early in the second period with a 41-32 lead with 16 minutes to play, but North Dakota State didn't back down.

Braun scored on a tough leaner in the lane, then again on a drive to the basket for a 53-52 lead with under 8 minutes to go.

But Ahanmisi, who started because Andre Hollins has been limited with an ankle injury, responded with a three-point play and another jumper from the wing to put Minnesota back in front with 4:32 to play, and the Gophers never trailed after that.

"We didn't come up here expecting to lose," Braun said. "We came up here trying to win. We're a very confident team. We don't care who we play, we're not expecting a loss."

Minnesota has played a creampuff nonconference schedule that included Appalachian State, St. Peter's and Central Michigan in the last two weeks.

The schedule makers actually did the Gophers a favor this season because star forward Trevor Mbakwe was lost for the season with a knee injury, and the soft schedule has allowed them to find their way without their leader.

The Gophers won all six games without Mbakwe, but now the competition gets much stiffer. The Gophers open Big Ten play on Tuesday at No. 25 Illinois and go to No. 20 Michigan before their conference home opener against Iowa on Jan. 4.

The Bison set the tone early, using hard-nosed rebounding and some slick execution in the half court to take a 14-2 lead in the first seven minutes.

The Gophers missed 12 of their first 13 shots, but coach Tubby Smith turned up the heat on defense with a full-court press and it rattled the young Bison. They used a 10-0 run to tie the game at 19, a spurt capped by a monster dunk in transition from Williams that woke the Barn up from the fog of a slow start.

North Dakota State only plays one senior, with the rest of its regulars all underclassmen including Hale, a redshirt sophomore. As the Gophers turned up the pressure, the Bison got loose with the ball and it cost them.

The Gophers had not played in nine days and looked a little rusty. But Williams said they have to figure out a way to avoid the slow starts that have plagued them all season.

"It definitely gives us extra urgency," Williams said. "We know that come Big Ten play we can't do that. It's going to be a lot harder to dig ourselves out of that hole."

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