SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Blake Hoffarber hit a 3 with 1:31 left to give Minnesota a 74-70 victory over West Virginia in the championship game of the Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan.
Hoffarber made all four of Minnesota’s 3s in the second half to score 12 points; Al Nolen scored 17 points, Trevor Mkakwe added 16 and Colton Iverson contributed 15 for the Golden Gophers, now 5-0.
“We had every opportunity to win,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
West Virginia (3-1) got a game-high 27 points from Casey Mitchell, who scored 18 of those in the first half. Mitchell was the only Mountaineer player to reach double figures. Kevin Jones, mired in foul trouble, was next on the stat sheet with 9 points in only 18 minutes of action.
West Virginia left points at the free throw line, the Mountaineers going 1 for 6 in the first half and finishing the game 12 of 23.
“You can’t go 12 for 23 and play as poorly in other areas as what we did and win,” said Huggins. “We’ve got some guys with some bad mechanics that have to be mentally tough enough to when you fix it stay with what’s fixed and not go back to the other stuff. They’ll get there – they’re good guys.”
There were nine lead changes and 10 ties, the latest coming at 70-all on two Mitchell free throws. Then Hoffarber nailed a 3 from the corner and Minnesota got a late free throw from Gerald Armelin for its final two-possession margin of victory.
Mitchell, coming off a career-high 31-point performance Friday night against Vanderbilt, was named to the all-tournament team. He made 10 of 20 field goal attempts against Minnesota and had an opportunity to tie the game late, but his 3 from the wing bounced high off the rim. Deniz Kilicli rebounded Mitchell’s miss but he could not covert the stick-back try.
That was one of 10 rebounds for Kilicli – his second double-figure rebounding effort of the young season. “I thought Deniz was more assertive in the second half,” said Huggins. “Deniz is just like a big, old teddy bear when he’s not assertive and he kills us when he’s not assertive. When he’s assertive he’s pretty good.
“We had chances,” added Huggins. “I think we were down two or three and Deniz is at the line and he misses two. Then K.J. makes a great effort to rebound the ball and goes one for two. Now you’ve made two great efforts and you end up one for four out of those great efforts. It breaks your back.”
Minnesota had a one-rebound advantage on the glass, 37-36, but West Virginia was able to rebound the ball much better in the second half. The Mountaineers also got a big boost off the bench from 6-foot-10 freshman center Kevin Noreen, who scored 4 points and grabbed a pair of rebounds in six minutes of action.
“Kevin Noreen got us back in the game,” said Huggins. “He got his hands on balls, he kept balls alive and he scored the ball for us. He just ran out of gas. Kev’s problem right now is he’s just not strong enough, but he battled.”
Overall, Huggins believes his team will learn valuable lessons from Sunday’s loss.
“It’s early and they’ve got a veteran team – they’ve got a good team – they are extremely well coached by Tubby (Smith),” said Huggins. “It’s not like we lost to a bad team.”
West Virginia returns to action next Saturday in Charleston, facing VMI at the Charleston Civic Center in a game that will tip off at 7 p.m. and will be televised locally on the Big East Network.