Hoffarber leads again as Gophers dominate

The junior guard scored 20 points during a 97-74 victory over St. Joseph’s.

by Marco LaNave

The benefits of the GophersâÄô three-guard lineup continue to manifest themselves. Minnesota (7-3) has a three-game winning streak with senior Lawrence Westbrook and juniors Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber in the starting five. In the latest win, a 97-74 triumph over St. JosephâÄôs (3-6) at Williams Arena on Saturday, the guardsâÄô early success created opportunities for others on the court. Sophomore center Ralph Sampson III had his first career double-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and a game-high three blocked shots, as he benefited from the guards âÄî including sophomore Devoe Joseph and freshman Justin Cobbs off the bench âÄî who made 12 of 23 combined shots (including eight of 12 from 3-point range) in the first half. âÄú[Guards hitting outside shots] makes a defense actually have to play them closer, which spreads the floor more and gives a lot more space inside to operate,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúI think weâÄôve been taking advantage of that these last few games.âÄù Minnesota scored 52 points in the paint on Saturday, including 34 in the second half. For the third straight game, the Gophers made at least half of their 3-point shots in the first half and set a season high in points scored. Hoffarber made four 3-pointers in the first half and scored 20 points to lead Minnesota for the third-straight game. âÄúI think all of us guards are playing well together, feeding off each other,âÄù Hoffarber said. In the last three games, Westbrook has quietly averaged 13.3 points per game, and senior forward Damian Johnson has scored 10.7 points while playing only about half of each game. Johnson and Nolen each had five assists on Saturday and the starters have averaged more than 14 combined assists per game in the last three wins. On Saturday, the Gophers had assists on 15 of their 19 first-half field goals. âÄúI think it was just an overall conscious effort to move the ball and get the ball to the open man,âÄù Sampson said. The teams were even for the first 12 minutes of the game. Hoffarber broke a 24-24 tie with a 3-pointer with 8:21 remaining before halftime. He made two more long-distance shots and Sampson scored 6 points as the Gophers went on a 24-9 to close the half. The Gophers made their final seven shots before halftime and shot 59 percent in the second half. They made 27 of their final 41 shots (66 percent). Sampson drew double teams and defensive attention early, but the Hawks couldnâÄôt ignore the GophersâÄô outside shooters for long and tried to take away that part of MinnesotaâÄôs offense. That left the scoring job to Sampson and sophomore center Colton Iverson, who was in foul trouble for most of the first half and into the second. Iverson scored all of his 11 points and had six of his seven rebounds in the nine minutes he played after halftime. âÄúThat center spot has been very productive for us all year,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúTheyâÄôre two of the most coachable players on the team.âÄù Smith said before SaturdayâÄôs game that he was looking for someone to rise up as a big rebounder. Minnesota out-rebounded St. JosephâÄôs 43-33 thanks to 17 combined boards from Sampson and Iverson. âÄúIt takes time; it takes patience, and theyâÄôre starting to come around,âÄù Smith said.