In a game that many expected to be a wire-to-wire battle, the Gophers asserted themselves as the more physical team and blew their way to a 95-77 win over Western Kentucky in the opening round matchup of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament.
Western Kentucky came into the game with a storied reputation and an opponent not to be taken lightly. The Hilltoppers came out gunning too, asserting themselves and hitting open threes while running out to a 20-17 lead. It appeared at the onset that Minnesota might have their hands full for the entire 40 minutes. The Gophers, however, stuck to their game plan of establishing their presence down low and taking away any semblance of an inside game for WKU. The result was pretty clear end-to-end domination.
The Hilltoppers headed for the three-point line to help save their offense, but Minnesota used a zone defense for much of the game to take away passing lanes and force poor shots. When the dust settled, WKU had shot a crippling 37% on 27-72 shots, despite only turning the ball over 15 times.
Minnesota, on the other hand, started out slowly, but found its groove late in the first half and never looked back. Each starter scored in double figures with Ralph Sampson III leading the charge with 22 points, a weapon the Hilltoppers never found an answer for.
The Gopher offense was clicking to the tune of 62% shooting and 53% from the free throw line, all without the exploits of Blake Hoffarber, who shot only 2-7 from three-point range.
Tubby Smith utilized a much smaller rotation that usual, giving his starters (Nolen, Hoffarber, Williams, Mbakwe and Sampson) all the playing time they could handle. In fact, only seven Gophers saw the court in the second half.
The Gophers started out on a high note, with Hoffarber hitting Rodney Williams on an alley-oop to begin the game. Sampson also started out quick, scoring four of the teams first 10 points. However, even with the initial cold shooting by WKU, the Gophers were unable to build any type of solid lead, missing their own easy buckets down low and giving away the ball on their own accord.
Minnesota had a size and strength advantage right from the start allowing few chances in the paint while forcing the Hilltoppers to the perimeter. WKU, though, was able to hit a few timely threes to keep them close and even grab a small lead. The Gophers simultaneously shot themselves in the foot, turning the ball over nine times in the first 12 minutes and shooting around 40%.
After the Gophers switched to the zone on defense, however, their speed and aggressiveness began to shine through, forcing the Hilltoppers into bad shots and causing a couple quick turnovers. Minnesota capitalized on the the gifts from WKU and turned a three-point deficit into a six-point halftime lead
Hoffarber was ice cold in the first half from three-point land, though Sampson was able to take charge of the offense, putting up nine points and showing the ability to get to the line. Al Nolen was the unsung first half hero, hitting two timely three-pointers on his way to nine first half points.
The second half started a little smoother, with Minnesota riding the early momentum wave to a 12-point lead. The Gophers smartly established themselves down low, where they had the greatest advantage, scoring their first 16 points of the half inside the arc and consistently feeding Sampson in the paint, where the Hilltoppers had no answer.
Minnesota focused its attention on keeping WKU’s inside presence at a minimum, again forcing the crux of the Hilltopper offense to the field. WKU didn’t respond positively, hoisting three pointers left and right and rushing shots. By the 10-minute mark of the second half, the Hilltoppers were shooting 35% and had connected on only seven of 21 three-point attempts, playing right into the hands of the Gopher defense. Minnesota cruised to the buzzer from that point.
Who did what:
- Ralph Sampson III was the focal point of the offense all night, backing down defenders and tossing up hook shots. WKU had absolutely no answer for Sampson and team realized it right away. He was also a beast on the defensive side, setting the tone for the Gopher dominance down low and forcing the Hilltopper action to the perimeter. Ralph ended up with seven blocks to go along with 22 points.
- Trevor Mbawke looked like an animal uncaged in the paint. Ferocious is probably the only way to describe his performance; pulling down rebounds and getting easy lay-ins and putbacks. Perhaps the only downfall was his free-throw shooting: a pitiful 2-7. If Mbakwe will be living under the basket this season and getting to the line, he’ll have to improve his free throw percentage. Aside from the line, Mbakwe was nothing short of amazine, pouring in 18 points and posting 10 boards.
- Once again, Blake Hoffarber was able to showcase his all-around skills. On a night when his deep shot wasn’t falling, he was able to provide value by getting open inside the three-point line, making fantastic cuts down the lane and getting to the second level of the defense where he was able to rack up nine assists. Some of his passes were literally jaw-dropping. Hoffarber finished with 16 points on 5-11 shooting, including 2-7 from beyond the arc.
- Rodney Williams had an up and down night. He poured in 17 points, but committed five turnovers, took some ill-advised shots and played out of control at times. Still, just when you’re ready to put him down for a bad shot, he’ll come back and hit a big-time three-pointer. It’s also hard to argue with aggressiveness, which led to seven rebounds on top of his scoring output.
- Colton Iverson played minimal minutes, again losing huge chunks of time to Trevor Mbakwe. Unfortunately, in the minutes that Iverson did play, he looked substantially inferior to Mbakwe and missed an easy bucket in the first half. Iverson finished the night with four points, no rebounds and three fouls.
- Al Nolen had an uncharacteristically offensive game, putting up 12 points and even hitting a couple three pointers when left wide open. Unfortunately, as a point guard, he actually looked inferior to Hoffarber for stretches and didn’t really have much of a defensive presence. He ended the night with five turnovers and no steals.
- Austin Hollins, Chip Armelin and Mo Walker all played minimal minutes as well and only Hollins saw time in the second half. Armelin and Hollins each hit a three pointer while Walker failed to register a point.