Minnesota looking for Mo-Mentum from Walker


Minnesota looking for Mo-Mentum from Walker

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Trevor Mbakwe's return from a knee injury has received plenty of attention and is considered the key to Minnesota's hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament this year.

The Golden Gophers will likely need a little Mo-mentum from a less heralded comeback to get there as well.

Big man Maurice Walker will play his first meaningful game since 2010 on Friday night when Minnesota opens the non-conference season against American. He tore the PCL and meniscus in his right knee as a freshman, then missed all of last season as well while dealing with complications from the injury.

The 295-pounder's presence is expected to add some serious bulk and muscle to a frontcourt that severely lacked both with Walker and Mbakwe out last season. Ralph Sampson III graduated as one of the most criticized players in the program's history, with fans frustrated by his seeming unwillingness to assert himself down low. And freshman Elliott Eliason gave plenty of effort, but the talent and experience just wasn't there.

That shouldn't be a problem this season. Mbakwe was a first-round draft pick before tearing his left ACL early last season and Walker brings some nifty footwork and a couple of nice big elbows to throw around in the rough and tumble Big Ten.

``We didn't have anybody that size and that type of physical aggressiveness and bulk,'' coach Tubby Smith said. ``Ralph gave us what he could. And Elliott gave us what he could. That's the difference, and I think they'll be difference-makers this year by being available to us.''

In his first game action in nearly two years, Walker scored eight points in 11 minutes during an exhibition victory over Minnesota State, Mankato earlier this month. It's going to take him some time to work off the rust from such a long time away from the game, but he was encouraged by how quickly things started coming back to him, even if it was against an overmatched opponent.

It was also clear just how long it's been for Walker to be out of the game. In college, two years is a lifetime, and it felt that way to him.

``It was exciting. I was happy to be out there,'' Walker said. ``It was just fun. It brought back old memories from freshman year. I just tried to be out there and do what I do best: be a big presence inside.''

Walker should have plenty of time to work his way back into a rhythm at the start of the non-conference season. The Gophers open with lightweights American, Toledo and Tennessee State. He'll need to continue getting into game shape, with coaches wanting him to drop at least another 10 pounds from his oversized frame.

``He still doesn't have the lift right now,'' Smith said. ``He's got to still continue to trim down.''

He also has to work on his timing and chemistry with point guard Andre Hollins, a sophomore who hasn't yet played a meaningful game with the big guy in the middle. He'll also have to regain the feel for playing alongside and off of Mbakwe.

``I thought I was out for a long time,'' Mbakwe said. ``He's been out for a super-long time. It was great for me to see him out there scoring and moving around. Mo is going to be big for us this year.''

If both Walker and Mbakwe are able to come back at full strength, the Gophers should be much better equipped to handle the meat and potatoes of their schedule. It will start with a trip to the Bahamas for a tournament opener against Duke, but will become imperative when Minnesota starts conference play in the smashmouth Big Ten.

Too often last year they were pushed around by bigger, stronger, more experienced teams. That has to change if they want to return to the tournament.

``He's a big body. People tend to run into him, and it's not very successful,'' Mbakwe said. ``So we're going to need Mo, and we just need him to stay healthy and keep playing the way he's been playing.''

The Spartans, Hoosiers and Boilermakers aren't going to have Sampson to push around anymore. When they come into Williams Arena this season, they can expect the Gophers to push back.

``Playing against Michigan State, playing against Illinois, Indiana, they've got a lot of big-bodied guys,'' guard Joe Coleman said. ``So having Mo out there is definitely a good thing.''


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Caps recall goalie Pheonix Copley after Braden Holtby 'tweaked something' in Dallas game


Caps recall goalie Pheonix Copley after Braden Holtby 'tweaked something' in Dallas game

You thought the Caps had a goalie rotation before, but now they have added a third netminder in the mix.

Pheonix Copley has been recalled from the Hershey Bears and will backup Philipp Grubauer for Washington's game in Detroit, the team announced Thursday.

The move comes in response to an injury concern for Braden Holtby.


Dallas Stars forward Remi Elie collided with Holtby midway through the third period on Tuesday as Holtby was extending to make a save. Holtby reacted awkwardly to the collision and could be seen skating and flexing his leg during the next stoppage.

With only nine games remaining in the regular season, Holtby's injury is a major concern. Given his recent struggles, the final few weeks of the season offered a chance for Holtby to get his game back to form. Just where his game will be when he is 100-percent healthy again is certainly a storyline to watch.


The good news for Washington, however, is that Grubauer is perhaps more ready this season to lead the team than he ever has been and confidence in him around the team should be high.

Since Thanksgiving, Grubauer has played in 22 games with a 17-11-4 record, a .939 save percentage, 1.85 GAA and two shutouts. No goalie who has played in 20 games or more has registered a better save percentage or GAA. He will certainly be looked upon to carry the load until Holtby returns. Whether this means he now has the inside track on starting in the playoffs, however, remains to be seen. That will depend largely on just when Holtby is ready to return and how Grubauer plays down the stretch.

Copley, 26, has gone 14-16-6 with two shutouts, a .898 save percentage and 2.86 GAA in 38 games in Hershey this season. He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by Washington in 2014. He was traded to the St. Louis Blues in the package that netted the Caps T.J. Oshie, but was reacquired by Washington in Feb. 2017 in a trade deadline deal that included Kevin Shattenkirk.

At the time, it was believed Copley would be the team's backup for the 2017-18 season with Grubauer likely headed to Vegas in the expansion draft. Vegas, however, took Nate Schmidt instead which led to Copley spending the season in Hershey. The Caps now will be happy for the extra goalie depth for as long as Holtby's health remains a concern.

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Wizards to give fans Phil Chenier emoji signs and 1978 title shirts for special weekend

Wizards to give fans Phil Chenier emoji signs and 1978 title shirts for special weekend

This weekend was already going to be special for Washington Wizards fans. Now they will get souvenirs to remember it.

As part of their celebration of Phil Chenier's legendary career and the 40th anniversary of their 1978 NBA championship, the Wizards are handing out emoji signs on Friday night and commemorative t-shirts on Sunday. All fans in attendance will receive a giveaway.


The emoji sign has Chenier's face on it and will be handed out for the March 23 game against the Nuggets. Chenier will have his jersey retired at halftime during the game. 

The emoji sign is presented by NBC Sports Washington. You're welcome, Authentic Fans.


The shirts will be given out on Sunday when the Wizards host the New York Knicks. 

Here's the front...

And the back...

Let's take a closer look at that back...

As a reporter who has received many giveaways over the years at pro sports stadiums, these are uniquely awesome. Should be a great weekend for Wizards fans. See you at the arena.


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