The Minnesota Gophers have won their first two games in Puerto Rico and are now poised to play West Virginia for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Championship game.
Minnesota’s path to the championship game indicates that the Gophers are poised and ready to bring back some trophy hardware to the Twin Cities.
Minnesota opening round game against Western Kentucky in the Puerto Rico Tournament Tip-Off went pretty much according to plan.
Western Kentucky was scrappy and conceded nothing to their larger more physical opponent. Minnesota needed a three point shot by senior captain and point guard Al Nolen at the buzzer at the end of the first half to extend their lead to six points.
Minnesota however was not to be denied utilizing a good mix of trapping zone play and man to man pressure to frustrate the Hilltoppers. Minnesota led by more than 10 points for the most of the entire second half and never was seriously challenged by Western Kentucky.
If the Gophers could have done better from the free-throw line, Minnesota would have blown out Western Kentucky by more than 20 points.
Western Kentucky decided to play man to man defense and focused most of their attention on trapping the guards and small forwards of Minnesota. The strategy was to create turnovers and prevent Minnesota from getting into their half-court offense.
Unfortunately for Western Kentucky fans, their team wasn’t able to create enough turnovers with their strategy.
Ralph Sampson III took advantage of Western Kentucky’s reluctance to double-team in the low post by scoring 22 points.
Sampson’s work in the offseason was on display as he patiently worked himself into position in the low post. When Sampson got to a spot he was comfortable, Sampson shot soft baby hooks that would have made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proud.
The most impressive aspect of Sampson’s shooting was that he was equally adept with his right and left hand in making his hook shots.
Next up for the Gophers was the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels with the first preseason first-team All-American freshman in the history of college basketball, Harrison Barnes.
Minnesota answered the challenge for the opening tip-off playing stifling defense on North Carolina’s big men contesting every shot and allowing the guards few open three-point opportunities.
“We lost our composure from the first moment of the game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “They were the more aggressive team right from the start and we did all the backpedaling. We didn’t react.”
North Carolina shot just 37 percent from the field and only 22 percent from beyond the arc. Barnes ended up six points, all from the free-throw line, as he went an abysmal 0-for-12 from the floor.
Minnesota took the lead going into halftime at 27-24 and never relinquished the lead finishing off the Tar Heels 72-67.
Ralph Sampson III had another solid performance posting scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds. Sampson’s game has clearly improved from last year and while he would be best served returning to college basketball for another year, he is clearly developing into a NBA talent.
Trevor Mbakwe continues to provide the tough interior presence that has been lacking in Minnesota. Mbakwe scored 12 points and snatched nine rebounds falling one rebound short of recording his fourth consecutive double-double on the season.
Colton Iverson and freshman Maurice Walker made significant contributions coming off the bench combining for 12 points and 15 rebounds.
The big men for Minnesota clearly won the battle in the trenches.
“They are tough,” North Carolina 7’0" center Tyler Zeller said. “We had a hard time getting through the screens. It’s effective the way they use everyone. If one [big] gets tired, then the next one comes in and is very talented. It makes it very difficult.”
Blake Hoffarber ensured that the Gophers won the battle in the air making five three-point shots on his way to 20 points. Hoffarber will undoubtedly be the biggest beneficiary of the improved interior post player of the Gophers.
The player of the game for Minnesota however was Al Nolen.
Nolen was constantly make hustle plays throughout the night and possibly had the best night in his Gopher career running the team.
Nolen was patient and didn’t force a bad pass into a tight situation or fail to initiate the offense such that a poor shot would need to be taken to simply avoid a shot clock violation.
On a couple of occasions when there was a long rebound, it was Nolen who was fighting to get to the ball first.
The play that epitomized Nolen’s night, however, did not happen on the court during the game but occurred during a timeout.
At the 3:08 mark in the second half with the Gophers leading the game 62-57, Maurice Walker took and missed an ill-advised three-point shot from the top of the key. Minnesota had at least 15 seconds left on the shot clock.
On the ensuing trip down the court, North Carolina pushes the ball and Walker inexplicably late in transitioning back on defense picks up a blocking foul attempting to take a charge on a driving Tyler Zeller.
Coach Smith immediately calls a time out.
Before the players get to the bench, Nolen is in the ear of Walker telling the young freshman that his last shot was a mistake and that he compounded his error with the foul.
Nolen, being the senior leader on the team, however also makes sure that he takes the time to repeatedly slap the backside of Walker to tell him that the play is over and that he is got to ready for the next play.
No doom and gloom on the Gopher bench. Everyone understands that a mistake was made but is now ready to move on and listen to what Coach Smith has to say in the timeout.
Iverson secures the North Carolina missed free throw after the timeout. North Carolina would never get closer than five points again.
The Gophers run their offense getting the ball into the hands of their best free throw shooter, Hoffarber, who drains two free throws.
On the next possession, the feisty point guard, Nolen steals the ball away from North Carolina which subsequently results in Minnesota putting two more points on the board with free throws.
Minnesota now gets the privilege of playing West Virginia.
The Mountaineers are very similar to the Gophers in that they play very solid aggressive defense, they have an outstanding perimeter shooting in Casey Mitchell and Darryl Bryant, their eight man rotation is comprised of upperclassmen with experience and they have a head coach who is highly regarded in college basketball.
The only real difference between the two teams is that Minnesota is the bigger team.
If Minnesota can use its height and size advantage to win the battle in the paint, they should win the game and put the rest of the Big Ten on notice that they intend to contend for the Big Ten championship.