SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Unranked and still unbeaten, Minnesota is taking a championship trophy back home.
The Golden Gophers have put the Big Ten on notice they expect to contend for a more prestigious title.
Blake Hoffarber hit the winning 3-pointer with 1:31 left to lift Minnesota to a 74-70 win over West Virginia on Sunday night in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
Hoffarber hit 4 3-pointers and scored 12 points for the Golden Gophers (5-0), who capped their four-day run in Puerto Rico with an early season title they hope catapults them to bigger celebrations.
Al Nolen scored 17 points and Trevor Mbakwe added 16 for perhaps the best Gophers team in four years under coach Tubby Smith. Minnesota beat No. 8 North Carolina on Friday and a Mountaineers (3-1) team fresh off a run to the Final Four.
“We know we beat a very good West Virginia team and we’re real excited to have won this tournament,” Smith said.
The Gophers went wild when the final horn sounded and did their little huddle dance in front of the bench. They led a strong number of Minnesota fans in chanting for the school and high-fived all the ones in the front row in celebration.
“Leaders lead by example and I think Blake and Al have shown that,” Smith said.
They had every reason to smile after this one. This Tubby vs. Huggy matchup was a thriller right from the tip.
There were nine lead changes and the score was tied 10 times in the title game. Hoffarber finally hit the decisive shot on a baseline 3 in front of an exuberant Minnesota bench with 1:31 to go and a 73-70 lead.
The Gophers tossed up a wild shot as the shot-clock expired, giving the Mountaineers one more chance to tie with 24.3 seconds left. But they missed two shots — Nolen was up in Casey Mitchell’s face on a 3-attempt on the first one and they missed around the basket on the next.
The Gophers hit one free-throw to secure the win and held the Mountaineers without a field goal for the final 3 minutes.
“We didn’t make any shots. It wasn’t like we didn’t have shots,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “Our execution wasn’t right. The right guys, at least I think the right guys, shot the ball.”
Mitchell scored 27 points for West Virginia. No one else reached double digits and Mitchell cooled down the stretch.
Mbakwe was the MVP of the eight-team tournament. Mbakwe has paid off for Smith after a troubled college career saw him go from Marquette to a junior college to sitting out a season after he was hit with a felony assault charge that was ultimately dropped when he entered a pretrial intervention program.
“It’s been four years and I finally get the chance to go out there and show what I can do,” Mbakwe said.
Colton Iverson scored 15 points and had eight rebounds. Iverson put the Gophers up 61-60 on a three-point play and his dunk on a Nolen miss made it a four-point lead.
Kevin Jones hit a tying 3 for the Mountaineers that made it 68-68 and Mitchell tied it at 70 on a pair of free throws.
It was that kind of back-and-forth game without a moment to catch your breath. Hoffarber hits a 3-pointer and Mitchell comes back with a one-handed layup and the foul to cut the Gophers’ lead to 42-39.
And when Nolen tossed the ball away on a foolish no-look pass down the lane, there was Mitchell again to capitalize, scoring a fastbreak layup that pulled the Mountaineers to 52-50.
Dalton Pepper banked a 3 and the Mountaineers led 56-55.
The lead didn’t last. They never did until the last one.
“We went 5-0 against five very good teams and it’s very impressive,” Mbakwe said.
Each coach has been to a Final Four: Smith won the 1998 national title at Kentucky; Huggins went last season and in 1992 with Cincinnati.
Mitchell, who hit the winning 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds left to beat Vanderbilt on Friday, came out taking and making seemingly every shot in sight. He scored 16 of West Virginia’s first 20 points, and had 18 overall in the first half on the strength of four 3-pointers. In this game, it was only enough to help the Mountaineers keep pace, not the lead.
“At times, you can see that we’re a good team, we just have mental breakdowns,” Huggins said. “We need to work on some things and get it together.”
They did it all in front of a surprisingly packed and loud crowd at Coliseo de Puerto Rico. The single-day crowd of 11,575 was easily a one-day record for the four-year old tournament. West Virginia fans showed they liked to travel when they followed the Mountaineers all the way to Indianapolis during last year’s Final Four run. The ones who came down from Minnesota were no doubt pleased they missed the freezing drizzle and rain that coated central and southern Minnesota.
The Gophers went undefeated without Devoe Joseph who was suspended indefinitely this month for a violation of team rules, taking their most versatile offensive player out of the lineup.
“Any time you lose a big-time player like that, it definitely hurts your team,” Hoffarber said.
Turns out, they can win without him.