MINNEAPOLIS—Trevor Mbakwe's offseason to-do list started at the free-throw line.
All that practice has been paying off for Minnesota's burly senior.
Mbakwe had 20 points and 10 rebounds for his first 20-10 performance with the Gophers, going 16 for 18 from the free-throw line in an ugly 67-57 victory over Fairfield on Thursday.
The Big Ten's leading rebounder last season, Mbakwe posted 19 double-doubles in 31 games, but because of his foul-shooting struggles, he topped 18 points only twice. He was more interested in the win after the game than he was the 20-10 milestone, but he acknowledged the significance.
"If I would've made my free throws last year, I probably could've had it a few times," Mbakwe said.
Minnesota (3-0) committed 23 turnovers and was limited mostly to Mbakwe's foul shooting and a handful of putback dunks, but that proved to be enough offense to stop the Stags.
Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander had 14 points each for Fairfield, which made just 2 of 16 attempts from 3-point range and turned the ball over 20 times. The Stags missed eight of their 23 free throws, squandering their opportunity to knock off a major-conference team on the road. They lost to Providence on Monday.
The Stags (1-2) haven't been to the NCAA tournament since consecutive appearances in 1986 and 1987. They were the top seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament last season, losing in the semifinals following back-to-back defeats in the title game the previous two years. First-year head coach Sydney Johnson, who came from Princeton, inherited an experienced squad that finished 25-8 last season and lost in the second round of the NIT.
"If we don't trust each other for a split second, it can get away from us, and that's what happened tonight," Johnson said.
Mbakwe finished one short of the school's single-game record for free throws made. Larry Mikan sank 17 in a game in 1969.
"He's going to get fouls, so either we've got to get him the ball or he can go get it," coach Tubby Smith said. "Being able to have a big man that can make free throws is a big plus."
Mbakwe's wrist has been bothering him for the past week -- he wore a brace during practice -- and he made only two of his seven field-goal attempts, including a wide-open dunk he missed in the second half. But he came through again when the Gophers needed him most, tallying 12 points over the final 20 minutes. He has grabbed exactly 10 rebounds in each game, and 38 of his 54 points have come in the second half. He posted a double-double in all three contests.
"It doesn't surprise me. Trev's a tough guy, and that's what we need from him. He goes out there and fights through it," said guard Austin Hollins, who finished with eight points and three steals but four turnovers.
Mbakwe said he grew so frustrated with his foul shooting down the stretch last season that he lost some of his aggression around the basket, lacking the confidence he'd be able to go to the line and make two shots. He finished at 62.9 percent.
With guidance from the coaching staff on his mechanics, Mbakwe went to work. He doesn't leave the court after practice until he's made 50 foul shots.
"This year I've been doing a good job, just being aggressive and taking my time," Mbakwe said.
The Gophers led 29-24 at the half and gradually created a cushion down the stretch, with all those marches to the line by the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Mbakwe, who overpowered the skinnier Stags underneath. Olander is a 7-footer, but he's listed at 220 pounds. He is Fairfield's only starter taller than 6-5.
Freshman Oto Osienieks, a lanky native of Latvia with the potential to be Minnesota's best outside shooter, gave the Gophers a couple of timely 3-pointers midway through the second half. The second one made it 45-37 Minnesota.
Senior center Ralph Sampson had a rough game, finishing with eight points but four turnovers. Freshman point guard Andre Hollins had 12 points, but he had five turnovers. Both Sampson and Rodney Williams limped off in the second half with ankle injuries.
"Just a lack of execution, a lack of mental toughness," Smith said, explaining the turnovers. He questioned why his players didn't use the jump stop more to keep the pace from getting out of control.
Austin Hollins gave them a lift late in the first half, rising above the crowd at the basket and throwing down a one-handed putback dunk to put them up by three with 2:13 left. Sixty-nine seconds later, he stole the ball in the backcourt from Sean Crawford and sped the other way for a slam to stretch the lead to five.
"I had a little energy. Coach is always telling us to crash the boards, so I'm trying to do more of that," Hollins said.
Minnesota and Fairfield are on opposite ends of the Old Spice Classic bracket next weekend in Orlando, Fla., so they could play again on Nov. 26.