So what is behind the Gophers’ three-game Big Ten losing streak in women’s basketball?
Listening to coach Lindsay Whalen it has less to do with X’s and O’s and more to do with X marks the spot. The X, of course, being Williams Arena, where the No. 23 Gophers (12-3, 1-3 Big Ten) will play host to No. 22 Iowa (11-4, 2-2) on Monday night in a game as must-win as can be at this point in the season.
Both teams dropped five spots in the new Associated Press basketball poll, which was released Monday.
“You have to protect your home in the Big Ten,” Whalen said. “You have to win your home games and try to steal some the road.’’
The Gophers are already one down in the home department, having lost to Illinois after leading by 17 in the third quarter. Their other two losses came at Michigan and Michigan State by an average of 17 points.
Monday’s game against Iowa (6 p.m., ESPN2) — and player of the year candidate Megan Gustafson — will be a huge test for the Gophers.
In order to protect their home court, the Gophers will need to defend more, turn the ball over less and figure out a way to get some scoring from the perimeter.
In three conference losses, opponents have outscored the Gophers 93-18 from three-point range and have 66 points off Gophers turnovers.
The three-point differential will be difficult to reverse. In a perimeter-heavy attack last season, the Gophers made a school-record 297 three-pointers. Carlie Wagner made 101 of those as a senior. Gadiva Hubbard had 69 as a sophomore but has been hurt this season. Destiny Pitts shot 90-for-241 on three-pointers as a freshman last season, but without the spacing provided by other long-range threats, Pitts has struggled to find her range this season. She has made just three of 25 three-point attempts in conference play.
In Whalen’s first season, the Gophers’ attack has changed. Still, teams have been able to squeeze the middle with zone defense because the Gophers can’t shoot them out of it.
“Some teams will just go zone until we start knocking our shots down,’’ Whalen said.
Pitts, last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is confident the Gophers will do that. “Somebody once said, shooters have to keep shooting,’’ Pitts said. “I’m not too worried about it, because it’s going in and out. To me, they’re still good shots. I think we can get that going.’’
Another problem is a defense that has been suspect at times, especially on the road. Minnesota ranks 11th out of 14 teams in points allowed in conference play (71.0).
“Defensively we haven’t really been setting the tone and making our mark,’’ guard Jasmine Brunson said. “I think that’s been the common theme these last two days. I think it’s self-inflicted. We’re taking plays off. We’re not communicating at a high level, like we were earlier in the season. We need to get back to that.’’
Said Pitts: “I think we’re starting to figure out, in the Big Ten, you have to play hard every single possession. Every possession is critical, and we can’t take plays off.’’
Led by Gustafson, Iowa presents a challenge. Gustafson leads the Big Ten in scoring (24.5) and rebounds (14.0) and is second in shooting percentage (58.8) in conference play.
The good news is the Gophers are back home, and there should be a good crowd; Minnesota leads the Big Ten in average attendance (5,873). Monday would be a good time for the Gophers to get their confidence back.
“Nobody is satisfied or happy about it,’’ Whalen said of her team’s three-game losing streak. “Everyone is waiting to get back on the court.’’