Trip to tropics includes a U basketball title

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2010 - 7:46 AM

Minnesota's upset of North Carolina on Friday spurred some national buzz, but the Gophers weren't content. They wanted the title.

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Gophers guard Al Nolen looked to pass around West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli (13) on Sunday. Nolen had 17 points.

Photo: Ricardo Arduengo, Associated Press

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SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - The Gophers didn't travel 2,400 miles to the Caribbean Sea to bask in the sun, albeit a nice perk.

And they didn't set out to earn a national ranking. Their upset over North Carolina on Friday spurred some national buzz, but the Gophers weren't content. They wanted the title.

They reached their goal with a 74-70 victory over West Virginia on Sunday to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, through an all-around effort that flaunted their depth.

Both Blake Hoffarber, whose clutch three-pointer with 92 seconds to play broke a 70-70 tie, and Trevor Mbakwe, who recorded his fifth double-digit scoring effort in as many games with 16 points, made the all-tournament team. Mbakwe was named the eight-team tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

Al Nolen's defense (five steals) and heart (34.3 minutes per game) helped a Gophers team that traveled to Puerto Rico without versatile threat Devoe Joseph outplay three teams with NCAA tournament prospects.

Nolen guided the Gophers (5-0) through tough times against the Mountaineers (3-1) with a performance that included 17 points, four assists, two steals and a 92 percent clip from the charity stripe (11-for-12).

"Al Nolen really ran the team as well as I've seen him do it in the four years he's been here," coach Tubby Smith said. "He's had an unbelievable tournament."

The Gophers' starters deserve credit for the way they carried the team to a dazzling finish. But reserves prevented an early West Virginia lead from becoming an impossible margin.

With the Gophers down 17-9 soon after they entered, a unit of Colton Iverson and four freshmen -- Austin Hollins, Maverick Ahanmisi, Mo Walker and Chip Armelin -- launched an 8-3 run. West Virginia junior forward Kevin Jones said he thought the youngsters would fall under the pressure.

"We kind of slacked off when some of their starters went out," Jones said. "We just took it for granted that we could do whatever we want."

But through five games, Smith's bench has come through in difficult situations.

Ralph Sampson III, who entered Sunday as the Gophers' leading scorer, finished with two points in only 12 minutes because of foul trouble. Backup center Iverson responded with 15 points and eight rebounds.

Armelin, a 6-4 guard, jumped over everybody to secure a crucial rebound after the Mountaineers missed a shot with five seconds to go. The freshman got fouled and made one of two free throws, enough for a four-point lead to secure the victory.

The Gophers took a 50-42 advantage with nearly 13 minutes to play, but they couldn't sustain the edge.

West Virginia, which got a game-high 27 points from Casey Mitchell, responded with an 11-3 rally to even the score at 53-53. Four lead changes and a pair of ties followed until the Gophers went up 61-60 on Iverson's three-point play. The Gophers had the lead until Jones knocked down a three-pointer with 2:58 to play, tying the score at 68-68.

Mbakwe caught a Hoffarber alley-oop on the other end to put the Gophers back on top. Mitchell, however, hit a pair of free throws to tie it again.

But the Gophers continued to attack. With less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Hoffarber hit his three-pointer in the corner, his 11th three in three games this tournament. Armelin provided the assist.

A big key to the victory was Minnesota's 26-for-35 clip from the free-throw line. West Virginia missed 11 of its 23 attempts.

"We felt like it was a real battle tonight," Smith said. "I thought our kids really showed a lot of toughness, a lot of heart. And it was a total team effort."

  • PUERTO RICO TIP-OFF CHAMPIONSHIP GAME GOPHERS 74, WEST VIRGINIA 70

    Up next: vs. North Dakota State 7 p.m. Wednesday • Williams Arena

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