SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP)—For just another game, it sure looked like a significant victory for Minnesota.
Blake Hoffarber scored 20 points, Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe created havoc all over the court and the Golden Gophers beat No. 8 North Carolina 72-67 on Friday night in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
“We had to come ready to play,” Mbakwe said. “All the guys were ready, focused. We knew this was a big game for the program.”
The Gophers (4-0) mobbed each other in front of the bench and danced around in a circle to celebrate the win—and their trip to Sunday’s final against West Virginia.
Coach Tubby Smith had called North Carolina just “another game,” but it sure looked like more while Hoffarber was silencing the pro-Tar Heels crowd with 3s. When the early upset was over, it looked as if Smith might have his best team yet in four seasons in Minnesota.
“I liked our courage, I liked our toughness,” Smith said.
Beating a top-10 team in the Tar Heels (2-1) and a 2010 Final Four team in the Mountaineers would put the Gophers in a strong position to enter The Associated Press Top 25 and stamp themselves as a serious contender in the Big Ten.
“If we’re in the Top 25, that’s great, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really mean much because once you go on the court, the rankings go out the window,” Mbakwe said.
The Gophers responded to each of North Carolina’s runs and never trailed in the second half as Smith got the better of Roy Williams in a matchup of national championship-winning coaches. Smith won his in 1998 in his first year at Kentucky and Williams has won two since he took over at North Carolina.
The Tar Heels showed they’re still developing after last year’s 17-loss disappointment.
“We just lost our composure from the first moment of the game,” Williams said. “They whacked us a couple of times. They were the more aggressive team right from the start and we did all the backpedaling.”
Harrison Barnes, the first freshman preseason All-America team pick, disappeared from the offense after a 19-point first half against Hofstra. He went scoreless in the second half of that rout, and was a non-factor against Minnesota. He missed all 12 shots and scored only six points.
“It’s tough on a freshman when everyone’s saying he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread to live it up to that,” Williams said.
Tyler Zeller scored 16 points, Reggie Bullock had 11 and John Henson grabbed 12 rebounds for the Tar Heels.
“We have to change something, because whatever we did tonight didn’t work,” Zeller said.
Back in North Carolina, the Cameron Crazies learned of the Tar Heels’ loss late in top-ranked Duke’s rout against Colgate and started chanting “Minnesota!”
The Gophers controlled the action from the opening tip and never looked rattled. When the score was tied at 41 in the second half, Hoffarber made a 3 and Mbakwe followed with a dunk.
Sampson scored 12 points, Colton Iverson had 11 rebounds and Mbakwe had 12 points and nine boards. They kept Minnesota in control inside and outside, but the Gophers never had a double-digit lead until Hoffarber’s 3-pointer made it 69-59.
“We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we would have liked, but we got the win,” Hoffarber said.
Reggie Bullock hit a 3 for Carolina with 19 seconds left that cut it to 71-65 and put a brief scare into the Gophers. But a brief scare was all it was.
“The first loss is always the toughest one,” Henson said. “It’s hard knowing we could have executed some little things that would have pushed us over the top. That kind of letdown is something we can’t have. But we have to learn from it.
Smith built Tulsa into a legitimate NCAA tournament threat, restored Georgia’s program to respectability and took Kentucky to a national championship, five Southeastern Conference titles and six regional semifinals.
He took over a Gophers program in 2007 that was ruined by NCAA sanctions and quickly made it competitive again, taking Minnesota to the NIT in his first year and two straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
It’s early, but he could be primed for more this season.
“Games like this are going to do nothing but help us in the future,” Mbakwe said.