Minnesota has tournament title hopes after upset

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — North Carolina could have gone a long way toward erasing a lingering headache from last year by winning an early season tournament.

Instead, it’s Minnesota playing for a tournament title.

Here’s what the Golden Gophers can count on: Beat West Virginia in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship game and there’s no denying them a place in The Associated Press Top 25 poll or a spot as serious contenders in the Big Ten.

Spoiling the No. 8 Tar Heels return to prominence, the Gophers leaned on Blake Hoffarber, Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe and earned a 72-67 victory Friday night.

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.

“Games like this are going to do nothing but help us in the future,” Mbakwe said.

Hoffarber scored 20 points, Sampson scored 12 points, and Mbakwe had 12 points and nine rebounds.

Beating a top 10 team in the Tar Heels (2-1) and a 2010 Final Four team in the Mountaineers might be the proof that this is coach Tubby Smith’s best team yet in his four seasons.

“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.”

Smith had called North Carolina just “another game,” but it sure looked like a significant victory for Minnesota.

“I liked our courage, I liked our toughness,” Smith said.

He’ll see if they can do it again vs. the Mountaineers, who showed plenty of each in a 74-71 win over Vanderbilt.

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 season’s 17-loss disappointment.

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