Minnesota tops WKU 95-77 in Puerto Rico
By DAN GELSTON
AP Basketball Writer
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Ralph Sampson III gets his wish: Minnesota has a date with North Carolina.
Sampson had 22 points, seven blocked shots and eight rebounds, Trevor Mbakwe had 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Minnesota beat Western Kentucky 95-77 on Thursday night in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Rodney Williams scored 17 points, and Blake Hoffarber had 16 points and nine assists for the Golden Gophers (3-0). They'll move on to play No. 8 North Carolina on Friday in the eight-team tournament.
"I've been wanting to play UNC ever since I wanted to get into college," Sampson said.
Sampson sure helped the Golden Gophers get the chance to play the Tar Heels. He went 7 for 10 from the floor and the Golden Gophers shot 63 percent overall from the field.
It's a match-up between two coaches who have won national championships: Williams has two at North Carolina and Smith won his at Kentucky.
"It's another game," Smith said. "It is our fourth game of the year. It's not going to make or break our season. This is just another opportunity to measure ourselves and test ourselves against a great program."
The Golden Gophers went 21 for 31 from the field in the second half. Led by Sampson swatting every shot in sight, Minnesota had 10 blocks. Western Kentucky had none.
Steffphon Pettigrew scored 25 points, and Sergio Kerusch had 13 points and 13 rebounds for Western Kentucky (2-1).
"We've got to play better, we've got to play harder," WKU coach Ken McDonald said. "We need more mental focus."
The Hilltoppers, trying to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, were beaten in every major category except 3-pointers.
"Sometimes a reality check is a good thing," McDonald said.
Pettigrew, 9 for 18, tried to rally the Hilltoppers and hit two late 3-pointers to make it a 10-point game. The comeback was too late against a balanced Minnesota team that may be Smith's best one yet.
All five Minnesota starters scored in double figures. Al Nolen, who scored 12, hit a 3-pointer to end the first half and put Minnesota up 40-34. The Gophers opened up the second half on a 12-2 run that stretched the lead to 16 points.
Mbakwe's double-double in a national tournament was the type of game he waited years to bust out.
Mbakwe played one season at Marquette, where a knee injury limited him to only 11 games. He left for a junior college in Miami, where he was charged with a felony assault that was ultimately dropped when he entered a pretrial intervention program requiring 100 hours of community service. Maintaining his innocence all along, Mbakwe finally returned to the roster this summer. He took a redshirt season while the case dragged on.
He followed Williams' 3-pointer with the play of the game on a stumbling, reverse layup that made it 75-60. The Golden Gophers hadn't quite pulled away until those two baskets did some needed damage.
Mbakwe wants to see if he can pull off another strong double-double, this time against the Tar Heels.
"Every little kids hears about the powerhouses," he said.
Updated November 18, 2010