Mbakwe added 14 points and Andre Hollins had 11 for the Gophers (11-1), who have won 16 straight games in this series, last losing in 1936.
Lawrence Alexander led the Bison (8-3) with 19 points, Taylor Braun added 15 and Marshall Bjorklund pitched in 12. Braun, who won two of the last 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.
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.
The Bison made the NCAA tournament in 2009, but they finished 11-18 the following year, 14-15 in 2010-11 and 17-14 last season, playing in the College Basketball Invitational. With the quick-and-lanky Braun leading the way, they’ve got the potential to push out unanimous Summit League favorite South Dakota State if Bjorklund and the rest of the bunch can provide enough production. NDSU was picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason poll of coaches, sports information directors and media.
Bjorklund, who played at Sibley East High School about an hour southwest of Minnesota’s campus, led a swarming, physical defensive effort underneath early in the game that forced the Gophers into a lot of fruitless possessions. 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.
Coach Tubby 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.
The improvement Williams has made since his sophomore season is remarkable, and he has Mbakwe’s injury to thank for part of it, since he switched from small forward to power forward to fill in. 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.
The Bison were simply 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 for 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.