Gophers have no problem topping Western Ky.
The Minnesota Gophers basketball picked a good time to leave the 29-degree weather behind them. They found the balmy San Juan temperatures more to their liking as they had their best shooting night of the year in a 92-77 win over Western Kentucky in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Thursday. Minnesota next faces No. 8-ranked North Carolina on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in a game televised on ESPNU. The Tar Heels cruised to a 107-63 win over Hofstra in the first round.
The Gophers and Hilltoppers battled back and forth in the first half. Minnesota jumped out to a 10-5 lead, but Western Kentucky went on a 12-4 run to go up 17-14. The Hilltoppers led 20-17, but the Gophers countered with an 8-0 run as Trevor Mbakwe had two rim-shaking dunks. His first slam came after a pass from Al Nolen and the second was after a steal. Nolen, who made just 11 three-pointers last season, made his second of the game at the buzzer to give the Gophers a 40-34 halftime.
Minnesota scored the first six points of the second half to go up 46-34 and their frontcourt performers scored their first 10 points of the second half. The Gophers led by 10 points or more the rest of the second half. Blake Hoffarber hit a three-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Gophers their biggest lead of the game at 95-77, the final margin.
All five Gopher starters reached double figures, led by Ralph Sampson III, who had 22 points on nine of 13 shooting. He also grabbed eight rebounds and blocked seven shots. Mbakwe had his third double-double of the year as he finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. He made eight of his nine shots from the floor.
Rodney Williams sank 7 of 10 shots, scoring 17 points. The three frontcourt players combined to make 24 of 32 shots and scored 57 points.
Blake Hoffarber had 16 points and a team-best nine assists (one short of the tournament record) and backcourt mate Al Nolen added 12 points.
Minnesota shot a season-high 62.5 percent (35 of 56) and 53.3 percent (a season-high eight three pointers in 15 attempts). However, their free throw woes continued as they were just 17 of 31 (54.8 percent) from the line. Mbakwe hit just two of his seven free throws.
Steffphon Pettigrew led Western Kentucky (2-1) with 25 points 9-of-18 shooting from the field, including four three-pointers. Sergio Kerusch, the preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year, had a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
The Hilltoppers shot just 27 of 72 (37.5 percent) from the field.
The Gophers are 3-0 and now face their first nationally ranked opponent of the year in North Carolina. They are hoping that their tough early schedule against teams that combined for a 74-29 mark last season will keep their hot start going.
Minnesota will face North Carolina in the second round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off at San Juan on Friday. The Tar Heels is hoping to bounce back from
a 17-loss season that saw them miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
North Carolina is led by 6-foot-8 forward, Harrison Barnes, who was considered the top recruit in the country. Barnes, who helped lead Ames (Ia.) High to back-to-back titles, picked the Tar Heels over several schools including Minnesota.
Barnes became the first freshman ever to be named first team Associated Press preseason All-American.
The Big Ten landed 14 players among the ESPN Top 100 high school players. Minnesota signed two in Andre Hollins, a 6-foot-2 guard from Memphis (TN) White Station and Joe Coleman, a 6-foot-3 senior wing from Minnetonka (MN) Hopkins. The SEC signed 21 of the top 100, while the Big East landed 20 and the ACC inked 14.
Ohio State led the Big 10 with four signees. Illinois had three and Michigan had two. Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin had one each.
The Big Ten has shined on the court as well. The Big Ten is off to a 22-1 start with Iowa picked the lone loss as they fell at home to South Dakota State 79-69.
Hollins had 13 points in the Spartans