The Gophers capped off one of the more amazing weeks in team history, beating West Virginia 74-70 in the championship round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament behind timely shots and solid free throw shooting. The team leaves San Juan with a 5-0 record and a virtually guaranteed top-25 ranking come Monday.
Expected to be a test for the frontcourt, the game was littered with fouls, 49 in all, and Minnesota found themselves in foul trouble quickly. Ralph Sampson was a non-factor in the game, picking up two quick fouls in the first half and two more in the second. Colton Iverson, Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams each racked up four fouls as well, and nearly hamstrung themselves during crunch time.
With the win, the Gophers wrap up the hardest portion of their non-conference schedule having secured wins over Wofford, Siena, Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.
West Virginia came out gunning to begin the game, with Casey Mitchell scoring 15 quick points (he finished with a game-high 27) before the Gophers could barely blink. The Mountaineers seemingly were unable to miss, and Minnesota was at risk of falling behind by a lot early, even finding themselves down nine not long into the game. The law of averages began to prevail, however, and WVU shots finally started finding iron instead of twine, allowing the Gophers to erase the early deficit and take control of the game.
Tubby adjusted the defensive assignments quickly after falling behind, with Al Nolen taking over the duties of guarding Mitchell. The result was a reversal of fortunes, with Mitchell only scoring three more points for the rest of the first half.
The Gophers were sloppy at times during the first half and had trouble establishing a strong presence inside. Trevor Mbakwe was able to pick up a few points on put-backs, but many of the first half points came surprisingly from the free throw line, with Al Nolen going 6-6 and Mbakwe going 4-4. Chip Armelin played some quality minutes, picking up six points and again bringing intensity to the floor.
Colton Iverson also played big minutes. With Sampson on the bench, Iverson took the reins on the post and responded establishing himself down low and with a significant rebounding presence on the defensive side.
Minnesota controlled the first eight minutes of the second half, building an eight point lead. With Sampson and Williams on the bench with foul trouble, WVU went on a run to cut the lead with 11 minutes left, turning the momentum in the process. From then on the teams traded leads with Minnesota struggling against the Mountaineer 1-3-1 zone and finding themselves in severe foul trouble.
Hoffarber hit an open three with about one minute and a half left in the game to give the Gophers the lead for good. Chip Armelin iced the game with a free throw with four seconds left to cement the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title.
Free throw shooting played a huge part in the win. A sore spot already this season, the team went to the line 35 times, hitting 26 of their attempts for a 74% line. Al Nolen had the best night at the line, nailing 11 of his 12 attempts.
Who did what:
- Al Nolen may have ultimately been the difference maker in the game, putting up a team-high 17 points and showing an uncanny ability to get to the rim and draw fouls. He hit clutch free throws down the stretch and was great at the point in terms of ball movement. In a game where scoring seemed to take a lot of work, Nolen was able to create opportunities for the team to get the ball in the hoop
- Blake Hoffarber scored all 12 of his points on three pointers, going 4-9 from beyond the arc. None were more important that his final shot from the corner that put the Gophers up 73-70 with a little over a minute left. Hoffarber got several good looks and capitalized on his opportunities for the most part. Hoffarber again showcased his incredible passing talent, hitting Mbakwe at one point on an electric alley-oop.
- Colton Iverson received a lot more playing time than usual with Sampson sitting due to foul trouble and it was great see him respond positively. Iverson finished 5-7 from the field and scored 15 points when all was said and done. His presence down low can’t be understated either. Going up against a very big Mountaineer team, Iverson crashed the boards and wreaked havoc along with Mbakwe to force the focus of the West Virginia offense to the perimeter. Not competing with Mbakwe for playing time in this contest, Iverson showed that he still can make his presence felt. Speaking of which…
- Trevor Mbakwe was again an animal on the court and under the hoop. It’s amazing to see the amount of effort he puts in under the basket to pull down rebounds and be there for put-backs. His importance to the team on both sides of the ball may make him the MVP through the first five games. He was also surprisingly solid at the line, hitting six of his seven free throws. Mbakwe also found himself in foul trouble down the stretch, but was able to stay aggressive while on the cusp of fouling out.
- Ralph Sampson was invisible during the game, scoring only two points and finding himself on the bench for a majority of the game due to foul trouble.
- Rodney Williams may have been more invisible than Sampson. Finding himself in foul trouble early as well, Williams only scored one point while going 0-5 from the field.
- Austin Hollins, Mo Walker and Maverick Ahanmisi saw minimal time on the court and didn’t really have an effect on the game. They scored two, two and one point, respectively.
- Chip Armelin scored six of his seven points in the first half, but none of his points was more important than his final free throw, which put Minnesota up four points with four seconds left, effectively sealing the game. Finding himself on the court during crunch time, Armelin showed that he can handle the pressure when called upon. It’ll be interesting to see how his playing time changes in the coming weeks with Devoe Joseph continuing to sit.
The team next plays North Dakota State at home on Wednesday at 7pm.
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Arduengo, Associated Press