SOUTH BEND, IND. – In the moments after a loss in the NCAA tournament, the big picture tends to disappear behind the sorrowful fog of the season’s end. It’s hard to look toward the future with eyes dampened by tears, even for a team that overcame a sizable hurdle just to earn its invitation.
The Gophers were downcast Friday after their 79-72 loss to DePaul in the first round, lamenting the close of a resurgent year and the end of their time with seniors Shae Kelley and Kayla Hirt. They also didn’t expect to feel that way for long. After missing the NCAA tournament for five years, getting even a small taste of the big stage resonated with a group that feels it is just getting started.
As the Gophers shared a postgame meal in their locker room at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion, several players said their two days in elite postseason company whetted their appetite for more. Coach Marlene Stollings viewed it as a good first step in her plan to restore the Gophers to a top-25 program, and deputy athletic director Beth Goetz said the university will provide the support to get it there.
Despite the loss of star Rachel Banham to a knee injury in December, the Gophers compiled their best record in 10 years in Stollings’ first season as coach. The NCAA tournament appearance, they said, opened their eyes to what is possible — and what it will take to get there.
“Now we’re hungry,’’ said guard Carlie Wagner, who averaged 12.1 points as a freshman. “Getting a taste of the success we had this year was incredible — and once you get a taste of it, you want more and more and more. We’re going to be working really hard, because we want to do really great things.’’
The Gophers’ 22 regular-season victories were their most since 2004-05 and their second-most in program history. They made the Associated Press rankings for the first time since 2006, rising as high as No. 21.
Sophomore center Amanda Zahui B. delivered on the promise she flashed as a freshman, leading the Gophers with 18.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game in a record-setting year. Her 39-point, 29-rebound performance against Iowa on Feb. 17 was one of the most talked-about games in women’s college basketball this season. She also broke her own program marks with 135 blocked shots and 426 rebounds this season and surpassed 1,000 points for her career.
Zahui was named the Big Ten player of the year by the media, was a first-team All-America selection by espnW and is one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, awarded to the top player in the country. She said she wants to improve all facets of her game over the summer, and she expects the experience the Gophers gained this season will move the entire team forward.
“Nobody on this team has been on this level yet, so we’re still learning,’’ Zahui said. “We’re still a young team. We reached a lot of goals, but we didn’t go where we wanted to go. We’re going to keep working.’’
Though the Gophers improved their conditioning to thrive in Stollings’ fast-paced style, their lack of depth hurt them, particularly late in the season. They will return nine players — including Banham, the Big Ten preseason player of the year. Newcomers include 6-1 guard Danielle Garven, a four-star recruit who is one of Canada’s top players; 5-10 guard Allina Starr, a former DeLaSalle standout transferring from Auburn who will be eligible in late December; and 5-6 point guard Mercedes Jenkins, a junior college transfer.
Stollings reiterated Friday that she is proud of her team for adapting to a new style of play and heightened expectations, and for refusing to compromise their goal of making the NCAA tournament after Banham was injured. “We’ve laid a very strong foundation for our program in our initial eight- or nine-month period,’’ she said. “We’re never going to be a team that’s just happy going to the tournament. We’re very goal-oriented and driven to really raise the level and take [the program] back to where it was eight or 10 years ago.’’
Goetz, the Gophers’ senior woman administrator, lauded the progress made this season. “We knew we hired a star in Marlene, and her staff is incredible,’’ Goetz said. “But I don’t think any of us would have expected this, given the trials they had this year. To say they’ve exceeded our expectations is certainly an understatement.’’