Gophers beat West Virginia to win Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Minnesota will likely be ranked in the nation’s top 25 after beating three teams with NCAA Tournament hopes.

North Carolinaís Larry Drew II, right, drives the ball against Minnesotaís Al Nolen during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, Nov. 19, 2010. Minessota won 72-67. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

Associated Press

North Carolinaís Larry Drew II, right, drives the ball against Minnesotaís Al Nolen during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, Nov. 19, 2010. Minessota won 72-67. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

by Josh Katzenstein

Opening the season with a difficult nonconference schedule, the Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team had a chance to make an early statement. By beating No. 8 North Carolina 72-67 on Friday then upending West Virginia 74-70 on Sunday night to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Gophers (5-0) let their play do the talking. âÄúCanâÄôt quiet the Gophers,âÄù coach Tubby Smith told WCCO radio after SundayâÄôs win. Sure, the Mountaineers arenâÄôt as good as last yearâÄôs team that advanced to the Final Four. And the Tar Heels proved to be overrated after falling to Vanderbilt in the tournamentâÄôs third-place game. But combining the senior leadership of guards Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber with the breakout ability of junior post players Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson makes this Gophers team look poised to be a force in the Big Ten this season. âÄúSometimes you wonder when you schedule a tournament or a game like this,âÄù Smith told the radio station. âÄúOur kids have shown a lot of class. WeâÄôve shown that we have a lot of character, and weâÄôre not characters.âÄù Mbakwe was named the tournamentâÄôs most outstanding player and scored 16 points in the championship win over West Virginia. Hoffarber also earned a spot on the all-tournament team as he scored at least 12 points in each game, including a game-high 20 against North Carolina. Despite making just 3-of-10 shots, Nolen led the Gophers in the title game with 17 points after attacking the basket numerous times to earn 12 free throws, 11 of which he made. Nolen said winning this tournament should make the players work harder in practice because theyâÄôve proven they can hang with the best. âÄúMe and Blake are not going to let those guys relax at all,âÄù he told WCCO. Also playing well Sunday was Iverson, who spotlighted the GophersâÄô depth by coming off the bench to score 15 points and grab eight rebounds after Sampson was in foul trouble. âÄúI think thatâÄôs the key to any good team because things are going to happen throughout the season âÄî good or bad,âÄù Smith said of his deep team that had 26 bench points Sunday. WhatâÄôs most impressive about the GophersâÄô victories in San Juan is that they beat three good teams without junior guard Devoe Joseph, whoâÄôs serving an indefinite suspension for violating team rules. Joseph is one of MinnesotaâÄôs best scorers and will only make the team deeper when he returns. âÄúI definitely learned that weâÄôre going to need everybody,âÄù Nolen said, adding that heâÄôs been receiving pregame speeches from sophomore forward Dominique Dawson âÄî a walk-on who has yet to play this season. âÄúItâÄôs not just going to be the veteran guys. WeâÄôre going to need every piece of the puzzle.âÄù Thursday: Minnesota 95, Western Kentucky 77 Many of the Gophers players were excited about the chance to play North Carolina before the season began, but first they had to dispatch of Western Kentucky, a team thatâÄôs made the NCAA Tournament two of the past three seasons. Behind SampsonâÄôs monster performance, Minnesota showed they werenâÄôt taking the Hilltoppers lightly. The junior center scored 22 points, blocked seven shots (both career marks) and grabbed eight rebounds. After starting the second half on a 12-2 run, the Gophers cruised to victory. Friday: Minnesota 72, North Carolina 67 The Gophers used a strong defensive performance to hold a Tar Heels team that scored 107 points in a first-round win over Hofstra to just 36.9 percent shooting. They also held preseason All-American Harrison Barnes without a field goal, as he scored just six points and finished 0-for-12 from the field. Although the Gophers missed chances to pull away, they never trailed in the second half. Sunday: Minnesota 74, West Virginia 70 Minnesota could easily have allowed this to be a letdown game after beating the Tar Heels, but NolenâÄôs energy and 28 strong minutes from Iverson carried the Gophers. The Mountaineers did not make a field goal in the final three minutes of the game. Under Smith, the Gophers are now 9-3 in regular season tournaments, will likely be ranked in the updated Associated Press poll Monday and truly appear ready to challenge for the Big Ten title. âÄúI definitely think the skyâÄôs the limit for this team,âÄù Nolen said. âÄúI think weâÄôve got the pieces to contend. ItâÄôs just going to come down to our character and our motivation and our hunger to go get it.âÄù