Gophers upset No. 8 North Carolina

For the third straight year Minnesota upseting a top-10 opponent early, this time with a 72-67 win over the Tar Heels on Friday.

Josh Katzenstein

If there was any doubt, it’s now pretty clear: look out for Tubby Smith’s squad in early season tournaments.

The Minnesota menâÄôs basketball team upset No. 8 North Carolina on Friday in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, 72-67, the third-straight year they’ve knocked off a top-10 team in nonconference play. Last season they beat Butler (No. 10 in in the coaches poll) in the 76 Classic and a year before upset No. 9 Louisville in the Stadium Shootout. Both seasons, those hallmark wins were crucial in earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.

âÄúAll the guys were ready, focused, and we knew this was a big game for the program,âÄù said forward Trevor Mbakwe, who posted 12 points and nine rebounds. âÄúWe just came out well and play every game like it’s our last.âÄù

The Gophers (4-0) will face West Virginia (3-0) in the finals Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Senior guard Blake Hoffarber led all scorers with 20 points, including timely three-pointers, although he shot just 6-for-15 for the game. Junior center Ralph Sampson poured in 12 points while Colton Iverson grabbed 10 rebounds and scored seven points.

Minnesota clamped down on a powerful Tar Hells offense that scored 107 points against Hofstra the night before, holding them to just 36.9 percent shooting. Touted freshman Harrison Barnes contributed most to that meager shooting percentage, finishing 0-for-12 from the field.

“It’s tough on a freshman when everybody is saying he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread to live up to that,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of Barnes, a preseason All-American. “People need to be realistic.”

After a tough win over Siena on Monday, Mbakwe said the Gophers needed to prove that they are a strong defensive team and won’t let impressive scorers like the Saints Clarence Jackson (29 points in the game) control the tempo.

“I think that the Siena game really opened up our eyes,” Mbakwe said. “Every game is going to be a battle.”

The Tar Heels struggled to make timely shots, which ultimately sunk them even after creating 19 turnovers, and the game may have revealed more about the Tar Heels’ problems than the Gophers status’ among the elite.

 âÄúWe played a team that struggled shooting the ball tonight,âÄù Smith said, âÄúand when you struggle like that, you’re going to have a tough night.âÄù

Williams noted his team’s poor performance, saying the team “just stunk.”

“We’re so young,” Williams said. “We just lost our composure from the first moment of the game. They were the more aggressive team right from the start, and we did all the backpedaling.”

Despite North Carolina’s miscues, this is still a good win for a Minnesota squad that barely got by Division II Winona State in an exhibition this month. The Gophers played well enough to win and, after taking a 27-24 lead into the break, never trailed in the second half.

“I’m not a very impressionable type coach, but I like our courage and I like our toughness,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “We’re bending, but we’re not breaking.”

Minnesota also proved to be the better-conditioned team in the game. Hoffarber and senior guard Al Nolen both played at least 36 minutes.

With the win, the Gophers will likely have a place in the updated Associated Press top-25 rankings that come out Monday. They will have Saturday off before playing the Mountaineers, who beat Vanderbilt 74-71 on Friday.