Sampson scores career-high 22 to lead Gophers past WKU

The junior center also had seven blocks as Minnesota won, 95-77, in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan.

Josh Katzenstein

After starting the 2010-11 season with two lackluster wins, the Minnesota men’s basketball team finally used its size to dominate a smaller opponent, beating Western Kentucky 95-77 in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Thursday night.

The Gophers (3-0) opened the second half on a 12-2 run after taking a 40-34 lead into halftime.

The story of the night was junior center Ralph Sampson, who led the way with a career-high 22 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks, also a career mark.

Sampson’s 6-foot-11 presence helped force the Hilltoppers (2-1) to shoot just 37.5 percent from the field and take 29 three-point attempts. In two wins this season, Western Kentucky only took a combined 31 shots from behind the arc.

Trevor Mbakwe continued his impressive start with Minnesota. The junior transfer posted his third double-double in as many games, scoring 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds.

All five of the Gophers starters finished in double figures, and the team shot 62.5 percent for the game, including 67.7 percent in the second half.

With Devoe Joseph serving an indefinite suspension, Blake Hoffarber helped fill in at point guard when Al Nolen was on the bench. Hoffarber showed a continued improvement with his passing skills, dishing a team- and career-high nine assists as well as scoring 16 points in 38 minutes. All five starters played 32 minutes or more.

The Gophers will face No. 8 North Carolina at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the tournament’s semifinals. The Tar Heels cruised past Hofstra earlier Thursday, 107-63.

While Minnesota can be proud of the impressive victory, the Gophers have plenty to work on. They made just 17-of-31 free throws and had a season-high 19 turnovers.