Sunday, November 21, 2010

Gophers outlast West Virginia, Capture Puerto Rico Title

The Minnesota Gophers had ever opportunity to coast in last night's game against the West Virginia Mountaineers.  They had already beat the North Carolina Tar Heels to give them a signature victory, WVU's Casey Mitchell was hot as fire and unguardable, they were down by 9 early, and it would have been easy enough to just call it a day.  Luckily, they're better than that, and what resulted was a second weekend NCAA Tournament quality game with the Gophers coming out on top and winning the championship of the 2010 Puerto Rico Tip Off, while simultaneously letting the country know that this team is going to be a contender.

It was a great overall game by the Gophers, and really highlighted why great depth is so important.  Ralph Sampson, arguably the team's best player thus far, was off.  Not only was in foul trouble, but the rough-and-tumble Mountaineers helped remind us of Ralph's biggest weakness - rough him up and get physical and he has a tendency to disappear.  Worked like a charm, but didn't matter because famous offensive brick wall Colt Iverson was more than game to step in and bang. 

Colt seemingly grabbed every rebound (he finished with 8) on both ends of the court ( 4 were offensive), and managed to convert most of his opportunities around the basket (scored 15 points on 5-7 shooting) and even hit his free throws at nearly an acceptable rate (5-9).  He even managed to steal a pass at the top of the key and take it coast-to-coast for a breakaway dunk.  I'd say it was a breakout performance, but we've seen this before, and tonight was a great reminder of what he brings to the table.  Solid reserve who can rebound, bang, and take up space at worst, able to control a game in the paint on rare occasions.  He's an excellent compliment to Ralph, and I'm damn glad he's on the team.   

One of the other player performances that really stood out was the play of Al Nolen.  He was absolutely the player in charge out there tonight, on both ends of the court, reminding everyone just how valuable someone with the tag "senior point guard" can be.  It's hard to think of a really good point guard for the Gophers since Eric Harris, but Nolen could be well on his way.  He scored 17 points, made a mind-boggling 11 of 12 free throws, completely shut down Truck Bryant, and just controlled the game on both ends.  I mean, he opened the Gopher scoring with a drive and step-back jumper from 15 feet, and I know I have never, ever, ever, ever seen him do that.  I don't think I've ever seen him do that.  I don't think I've ever seen him attempt it, actually.  He's never going to be an awesome offensive force, but he's improved enough that he's no longer a complete liability, and with his ability to blow by anybody that's really all you need.   

One last performance of note was that of Chip Armelin.  With Rodney Williams struggling and Austin Hollins not playing as well as he had in the past, Tubby turned to Armelin as his small forward of choice, even giving him the crunch time minutes, and Armelin repaid that trust by coming up with a couple of huge plays.  He had a big rebound late and made the assist on the game-winning three pointer by Hoffarber on a nice rotation around the three point line.  Huge game for Chip, and shows that this team will be 9 very quality players deep.

Tonight the players who carried the Gophers in the first two rounds - Sampson, Trevor Mbakwe, and Blake Hoffarber - were overshadowed by Iverson, Nolen, and Armelin, and that couldn't possibly be more of a positive. 

A Championship for the Gophers.  And let's not forget, they did it without Devoe Joseph.  This team has a legit shot at being special.  How special remains to be seen, but this is a hell of a start.

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