banhamI chatted with Gophers women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings on Friday for a Q&A that ran in Sunday’s paper. The first question I asked her was about the program’s opportunity to seize some momentum in the local sports market by continuing to play well while other teams were faltering. Stollings took that question and ran with it as an opportunity to remind everyone, once again, that if they haven’t seen senior Rachel Banham play … well, they really should. Said Stollings:

“I think one of the big things is we only have three home games left, and we have one of the most special players to ever wear a Minnesota uniform in Rachel Banham. I think people shouldn’t miss an opportunity to see her in one of these final three home games. She’s a rarity. Players like her don’t come around that often.”

Two days later — on Sunday, in Banham’s first game since Stollings said those nice words — the most prolific scorer in Gophers basketball history (men’s or women’s) tied the record for the most prolific scoring day in NCAA women’s basketball history by dropping 60 points on Northwestern.

Perhaps with Stollings’ words fresh on my mind, I caught the second half and both overtimes of Sunday’s 112-106 Minnesota victory. I first remember paying attention to Banham’s scoring total when it was in the upper 20s, thinking, “Wow, she’s having a really good game.” And then she just kept going and going, becoming an unstoppable force that demanded constant full attention.

See, it wasn’t just that she put up 60 points. That’s an amazing number, but the really impressive thing about her performance is that the Gophers needed every last point.

With the game slipping away early in the fourth quarter and the Gophers trailing 65-56, Banham scored all 11 points during an 11-1 run — needing just 98 seconds of game clock to do it — to put the Gophers ahead.

She scored five of the Gophers six points in the final 2 minutes of regulation, helping turn a 78-74 deficit into an 80-80 tie to force overtime.

In overtime, with the Gophers trailing by 5 with 42 seconds left, Banham hit a long three to get them within 92-90 and then a driving layup in the closing moments to force a second OT.

In that second extra session, Banham’s three-point play in the final minute gave the Gophers some breathing room, and her two free throws — points 59 and 60 — with 11 seconds left iced the game.

Former Gophers men’s guard Andre Hollins, Banham’s boyfriend, posted a short video on Twitter in which he said, “Yep, I think it’s that time that I announce to the world that my girlfriend is better than me at basketball.”

Other Twitter praise poured in from around the world, including a tweet from Tyus Jones and this tweet from WNBA star Skylar Diggins: “Shoutout to MN G Rachel ‘Banham for her 60 pt performance! She should’ve gotten way more love for this … but anywho, you showed OUT! #tough

Banham did all of that a little over a year after tearing her ACL. She’s been on the path to full strength since then, deciding to come back for another year of eligibility in hopes of playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in her career.

I asked Stollings on Friday if Banham’s strong season-to-date had surprised her in any way given the seriousness of that injury.

“I think it’s unpredictable, but our hope and message to Rachel and everyone in the outside world is that Rachel is determined to have the best season of her entire career,” Stollings said. “And because of that, we had high expectations that you would see the most well-conditioned, well-practiced player that we have seen to date. I think she’s just really hitting her stride. It takes about a year coming off an ACL. With her, I think you’re just starting to see her be really comfortable out there.”

Two days later, Banham scored 60. She cruised past Lindsay Whalen’s career scoring mark earlier this season and now sits at 2,773. The Gophers (16-7 overall, 8-4 in the Big Ten) have six regular-season games left and the possibility for at least a few more in the conference/national tournament. It’s not unreasonable to think she could get to 3,000.

The next of those games is Thursday against Nebraska at Williams Arena. It’s one of your last chances to see a legend.

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