SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Ralph Sampson III gets his wish: Minnesota has a date with North Carolina.
Sampson had 22 points, seven blocked shots and eight rebounds, Trevor Mbakwe had 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Minnesota beat Western Kentucky 95-77 on Thursday night in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Rodney Williams scored 17 points, and Blake Hoffarber had 16 points and nine assists for the Golden Gophers (3-0). They'll move on to play No. 8 North Carolina on Friday in the eight-team tournament.
"I've been wanting to play UNC ever since I wanted to get into college," Sampson said.
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Sampson sure helped the Golden Gophers get the chance to play the Tar Heels. He went 7-for-10 from the floor and the Golden Gophers shot 63 percent overall from the field.
It's a matchup between two coaches who have won national championships: Williams has two at North Carolina and Smith won his at Kentucky.
"It's another game," Smith said. "It is our fourth game of the year. It's not going to make or break our season. This is just another opportunity to measure ourselves and test ourselves against a great program."
The Golden Gophers went 21-for-31 from the field in the second half. Led by Sampson swatting every shot in sight, Minnesota had 10 blocks. Western Kentucky had none.
Steffphon Pettigrew scored 25 points, and Sergio Kerusch had 13 points and 13 rebounds for Western Kentucky (2-1).
"We've got to play better, we've got to play harder," WKU Coach Ken McDonald said. "We need more mental focus."
The Hilltoppers were beaten in every major category except three-pointers.
"Sometimes a reality check is a good thing," McDonald said.
Pettigrew, 9-for-18, tried to rally the Hilltoppers and hit two late three-pointers to make it a 10-point game. The comeback was too late against a balanced Minnesota team that may be Smith's best one yet.
The Gophers opened the second half on a 12-2 run that stretched the lead to 16.