Golden Gophers celebrate title in Puerto Rico
Minnesota wants to win a tournament title in March, not only in November.
If the Golden Gophers - who cracked the Associated Press rankings at No. 15 on Monday - end up with a Big Ten tournament championship on the line later this season, they can look back at their magnificent run in Puerto Rico as the catalyst for it all.
Blake Hoffarber hit the winning 3-pointer with 1:31 left to lift Minnesota to a 74-70 win over West Virginia on Sunday night in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
There were nine lead changes and the score was tied 10 times in the title game. Hoffarber finally hit the decisive shot on a baseline 3 in front of an exuberant Minnesota bench for a 73-70 lead with 1:31 to go.
Shortly after, Hoffarber was back near the scene of the winning spot. The Gophers went wild when the final horn sounded and did their little huddle dance in front of the bench. They led a strong number of Minnesota fans in school chants and high-fived the ones in the front row in celebration.
Hoffarber hit 4 3-pointers and scored 12 points for the Golden Gophers (5-0), who capped their four-day run in Puerto Rico with an early season title they hope catapults them toward bigger celebrations.
''I've got to compliment my staff,'' coach Tubby Smith said. ''We identified the type of people we wanted and we got good people, good kids, good men.''
Al Nolen scored 17 points and Trevor Mbakwe added 16 for perhaps the best Gophers team in four years under Smith. Minnesota beat No. 8 North Carolina (2-2) on Friday and a Mountaineers (3-1) team fresh off a run to the Final Four.
''We know we beat a very good West Virginia team and we're real excited to have won this tournament,'' Smith said.
Mbakwe was the MVP of the eight-team tournament. Mbakwe has paid off for Smith after a troubled college career saw him go from Marquette to a junior college to sitting out a season after he was hit with a felony assault charge that was ultimately dropped when he entered a pretrial intervention program.
''It's been four years and I finally get the chance to go out there and show what I can do,'' Mbakwe said.
The Gophers went undefeated without Devoe Joseph who was suspended indefinitely this month for a violation of team rules, taking their most versatile offensive player out of the lineup.
''Any time you lose a big-time player like that, it definitely hurts your team,'' Hoffarber said.
Turns out, they can win without him.
While they were busy celebrating, the Tar Heels were left reeling after their second straight loss in a tournament that could have showcased a return to prominence. After Kevin Stallings, his former assistant at Kansas, led Vanderbilt to a 72-65 win over the Tar Heels, coach Roy Williams had to answer more questions about the Carolina blue sky falling again.
Williams insisted after losing to Minnesota on Friday that he didn't think anymore about last year's 17-loss debacle.
He said on Sunday there was no comparison between last year and the start of this one.
''This is not last year,'' Williams said.
It was an emotional win for Stallings, who was an assistant for Williams at Kansas from 1989-93 when the Jayhawks went to two Final Fours.
''I don't want to offend the boss and make him upset,'' Stallings said, apologizing for going first in the postgame press conference.
Didn't he do that already?
''No, he's too much of a pro. He's a much better sport than I am,'' Stallings said.
John Jenkins scored 16 points, and Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor each had 15 to lead the Commodores (3-1) to a win over a top-10 team for the first time since knocking off No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 26, 2008.
Tyler Zeller had 20 points and 10 rebounds for North Carolina, and freshman Harrison Barnes muddled through an 11-point night.
Barnes, who went 0 for 12 against Minnesota, wasted no time scoring in this one, hitting a jumper on the first possession of the game. Barnes, a preseason All-America team pick as a freshman, scored 19 points in the first half against Hofstra on Thursday and hadn't made a bucket again.
''People need to get off this first-team All-America thing,'' Stallings said. ''Give the kid a chance. He's going to be a really, really good player. ... It's unfair to him. He's already got a target on his back and it's not of his own doing.''
The seven other teams in the field all want to get where West Virginia played last year - the Final Four.
Casey Mitchell scored 27 points for West Virginia. No one else reached double digits and Mitchell cooled down the stretch.
The Gophers tossed up a wild shot as the shot-clock expired, giving the Mountaineers one more chance to tie with 24.3 seconds left. But they missed two shots - Nolen was up in Mitchell's face on a 3-attempt on the first one and they missed around the basket on the next.
The Gophers hit one free throw to secure the win and held the Mountaineers without a field goal for the final 3 minutes.
''We didn't make any shots. It wasn't like we didn't have shots,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. ''Our execution wasn't right. The right guys, at least I think the right guys, shot the ball.''
There was no doubt all the right ones shot 'em and made 'em for Minnesota.