MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Riding high after winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship, No. 15 Minnesota wasn’t going to suffer a letdown back at home.
Blake Hoffarber scored 24 points, including four 3-pointers, and the Gophers cruised to an 84-65 win over North Dakota State on Wednesday night.
Trevor Mbakwe had 12 points and seven rebounds and Ralph Sampson III finished with nine points and three blocks as Minnesota (6-0) avoided a setback after beating three potential NCAA tournament teams in Puerto Rico last weekend. The breakthrough helped the Gophers earn their highest ranking since Tubby Smith became coach in 2007.
“I wasn’t worried,” Smith said. “I think we’ve been playing pretty good. It’s going to take a team playing pretty well to beat us because we don’t do a lot of things to beat ourselves. We’re a veteran ballclub. We’ve got size. We’ve got ways that we can finish. We have depth now. So if we’re not being productive, we can bring someone off the bench now.”
Michael Tveidt led North Dakota State with 14 points. Drew Lundberg had 11 points for the Bison (3-2).
With the accolades going Minnesota’s way, North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips thought his squad might have a chance to steal a game from a ranked opponent. The poised Gophers weren’t going to let it happen.
“I give them a lot of credit for coming back from San Juan with everybody probably telling them how good they are and then still playing well,” Phillips said. “That takes a pretty mature team. Make no mistake about it, I was eyeing this up and saying it couldn’t have worked any better coming in. We just weren’t able to do our job tonight.”
Hoffarber, one of two seniors for Minnesota, was part of the calming influence.
Hoffarber had 15 points at halftime and ended the first half with a running jumper to cap a 20-3 Minnesota run for a 42-26 lead.
“They were getting up right on me and I was getting off screens,” Hoffarber said. “One or two dribbles and the pull-up was there. It kept me in there the rest of the night and my teammates were finding me open.”
North Dakota State—which entered the contest hitting 53 percent of its 3-pointers—stayed with the taller Gophers early thanks to its outside shooting.
The Bison hit four 3-pointers and led four times in a back-and-forth first half. But Minnesota pulled away when North Dakota State’s shots eventually didn’t fall.
The Bison had four turnovers and were held scoreless the final four minutes of the first half.
“We were getting good inside-out looks,” Phillips said. “We were patient offensively. Then all of a sudden we just had a couple of turnovers. They got out in transition. That turned the table for us.”
Turning up the defensive pressure is just what the Gophers have learned to rely on during the Smith era.
In the semifinals in Puerto Rico, the Gophers held previously No. 8 North Carolina to just 36 percent shooting.
North Dakota State shot 37 percent on Wednesday.
With a comfortable advantage, Smith used his reserves for much of the second half, except for Hoffarber.
Hoffarber, staying on the court for extended stretches after forward Rodney Williams left the game favoring his right ankle, answered any challenge from the Bison. Twice in the second half, North Dakota State cut the deficit to single digits but Hoffarber responded with 3-pointers.
“Coach has really emphasized six, seven passes and then a great shot,” Hoffarber said. “I think in the previous years, a couple times we didn’t pass it as much and coach is emphasizing that this year. I think we’ve got real unselfish guys this year that are looking for other people and just playing well together.”
The Gophers had 23 assists on their 27 field goals against North Dakota State, and finding an open Hoffarber plays a big part.
After scoring just two points on 1 of 4 shooting in a season-opening win against Wofford, Hoffarber has averaged 17.6 points in the last five contests.
Using its notable size advantage, Minnesota outrebounded the Bison 46-33 and had 12 blocks.