MINNEAPOLIS – Tubby Smith knew Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III would be way too much for little Bemidji State in the paint.
What the Minnesota coach really wanted to see was how the many new faces on the Golden Gophers handled their first game in maroon and gold.
They were shaky at best, allowing the Division-II school from Northern Minnesota to hang around a lot longer than anyone really expected.
Mbakwe had 17 points and 11 rebounds and Sampson scored 15, leading Minnesota to a 71-58 exhibition victory over Bemidji State on Tuesday night.
"They looked a little nervous," Smith said of the second unit. "They didn't play well together, didn't shoot it well, didn't do a lot of things well."
Rodney Williams added 10 points for the Golden Gophers, who outrebounded Bemidji State 45-23.
David Berthene had 21 points and James Ellisor finished with 12 for the Beavers, who didn't look intimidated by the big school in the big city. They hit 10 3-pointers to keep the deficit under double digits for much of the game.
"It being a Big Ten team, the University of Minnesota, is a special deal for all the kids from Minnesota," said Bemidji coach Matt Bowen, who has six players from the state on his roster. "It means a lot for exposure, the game will be on Big Ten Network (Wednesday), that's the only time we will be on national TV."
The Gophers weren't able to really put the game away until a 14-2 run gave them a 19-point lead with under 7:30 to play. They turned the ball over 14 times and struggled when their starters went to the bench.
A group that included freshmen Joe Coleman, Elliott Eliason and Oto Osenieks and sophomores Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin were outscored 8-2 during an early portion of the first half and 11-2 midway through the second half to allow the Beavers to hang around.
"I think we all were kind of nervous," said Mbakwe, a senior. "I had a little jitters. This is the first game and when you get fans you want to play your best, especially when it's your first game."
Smith said he wanted to see his team play a faster, more uptempo brand of basketball after being limited to mostly half-court play due to injuries and defections at the point guard position last year.
Freshman Andre Hollins got the start at point guard and tried to push the action as much as possible, leaking out in transition for long outlet passes. He had eight assists to go along with six points and four rebounds, and junior college transfer Julian Welch missed the game with a sprained ankle.
Missing one of their top shooters, the Gophers scored just 30 points in the first half. The Beavers hit four 3-pointers in the first half to hang around and were down just nine at the break.
"We certainly gained ground on the second group," Bowen said. "I thought (the performance was) more encouraging than discouraging for us, by far."
Smith hardly looked pleased at times, ripping into his second unit in the second half when Eliason didn't get back on defense and allowed an easy layup for Ellisor that made it 42-33.
"Those guys really haven't been on the court," Smith said. "I thought they all looked a little nervous."
Once the starters came back in, the Gophers took control. They outscored Bemidji 14-2 over a three-minute stretch to take a 61-43 lead. Mbakwe and Sampson each had putback dunks and the bigger Gophers overpowered the Beavers in the paint to earn several trips to the free-throw line.
"It starts on defense," Mbakwe said. "I think we just got caught out of position a couple times. I think probably just mentally and playing hard. We lacked the intensity at times. When we picked it up, we were able to extend our lead a little bit. But we kept them in the game."
A barrage of 3s from Berthene, Ellisor and Jake Schalow followed, but it was too late for Bemidji to pull off what would have been a stunning upset. Berthen went 5 for 11 from 3-point range, and Schalow was 4 for 7 on his way to 12 points.
Minnesota finished with just 12 fastbreak points and went 1 for 7 from 3-point range. Smith said this is the best outside shooting team he's had in his five years at Minnesota, but replacing career 3-point leader Blake Hoffarber may be more difficult than it first looked.
Austin Hollins had the lone 3-pointer on Tuesday night.
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APkrawczynski.