- Associated Press - Saturday, November 20, 2010

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.

“It doesn’t have a lot to do with last year’s team,” Williams said. “It was so many simple things.”

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.

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.

The Mountaineers stand in their way.

West Virginia’s Casey Mitchell could hardly believe his luck when he hit his winner. One Vanderbilt defender flailed at the ball on a steal attempt and a botched defensive switch left him all alone on the wing with a clean look ahead.

“I took my time, took a deep breath and let it go,” Mitchell said.

He let the shot fly, and hit the winning 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds left. He finished with a career-high 31 points.

Mitchell worked his way wide open when Vanderbilt switched to a 2-3 zone during the possession that helped leave him open.

“We should have had him covered on that last play,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “There was no reason for him to have gotten that shot on the last play. We just missed coverage and didn’t do what we were coached to do.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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