The first emotion she felt was fear. When Rachel Banham woke up in the middle of the night this past July, gasping for breath through the searing pain in her chest, she worried she had a heart condition.
Tests showed that the Gophers sophomore had a blood clot in her lung, which could be treated with medication. But the relief of that diagnosis soon gave way to concern about whether Banham would be fully recovered by the start of basketball season. "At first, the doctor told me it would take three to six months,'' said the point guard, last season's Big Ten Freshman of the Year. "When you hear six months, you're like, 'That's halfway through the season!' I was so mad. That's the only thing I kept asking about.''
After being prohibited for 14 weeks from activities that involved physical contact, Banham got the all-clear on Oct. 23. She is not in peak condition for Saturday's season opener against Washington State at Williams Arena, nor did she get to work on everything she wanted to accomplish over the summer. But she will begin the next chapter in her Gophers career right on time, and for now, that's good enough.
Gophers coach Pam Borton said that even as Banham works to regain her fitness and timing, she remains the most vital cog in her team's offense. With a deeper and more versatile roster surrounding her, Banham expects to improve on a stellar rookie season in which she scored a team-high 16.1 points per game and led the Gophers in defensive rebounds and minutes played.
"I missed a chunk of time to work on getting better at some things, but I don't think it set me too far behind,'' said Banham, the only underclassman named to the preseason All-Big Ten team chosen by the league's coaches last month. "I still have the same goals for myself and the team. I want to be on the All-Big Ten first team and compete for Big Ten player of the year, and I want us to have a lot of wins and get to the NCAA tournament.
"Having to sit out was the worst. I just want to get going again and put all that behind me.''
While Borton noted that many players develop a deeper appreciation for the game after being sidelined with health issues, she can't imagine Banham loving basketball any more than she already did. Her enthusiasm, skills and instincts made her a natural leader even as a freshman, earning her the title of co-captain this season with junior Micaella Riche.
Borton anticipates that the confidence and experience gained through her heavy freshman workload will allow Banham's leadership to bloom further in her sophomore year. Her role in the offense will expand, as well, as Borton plans to occasionally move her to shooting guard to give her more opportunities to score. The coach also found a silver lining in Banham's illness: The knee pain that troubled her late last season was eased considerably by three months away from full-speed practices.
"She's always ready to go, but she plays better when she's fresh,'' said Borton, whose Gophers finished 19-17 last season and won the postseason Women's Basketball Invitational championship. "I'm sure she wanted to work on her game more, or get in the best shape of her life over the summertime. But I think she's really going to take a pounding this year, and maybe the extra rest helped her. She's feeling really, really good about where she is right now.''
Especially compared to where she was in July. The day after her 19th birthday, Banham experienced chest pains and saw a doctor, who found no evidence of heart trouble.
After waking up struggling to breathe, she went to the hospital. Banham spent a couple of days there -- with visits from Borton and her teammates -- as the clot was discovered and she began treatment. She took blood-thinning medication for three months and was forced to remain inactive for a time because of breathing difficulty and pain.
Once those symptoms disappeared, Banham was allowed to resume such noncontact workouts as weightlifting, running and solo drills. She was disappointed that she had to abandon one offseason goal -- solidifying her defense -- and frustrated by having to watch practice from the sidelines. When she returned, though, Banham quickly made up for lost time. She scored a team-high 22 points in the Gophers' exhibition opener, a victory over Concordia (St. Paul) played only eight days after she was cleared to practice, and a team-best 20 as the Gophers defeated Minnesota State Mankato.
"What she went through was scary,'' senior guard Leah Cotton said. "But she's definitely a fighter. She has such a positive attitude on the court; when things aren't going her way, she finds a way to make them go her way. And she came back hungry.''
Last year, Banham said, her first college games felt so challenging that she didn't know how she was going to adapt. She finished the season as a member of the All-Big Ten second team and all-freshman team and scored 580 points, third-most of any freshman in the country and the seventh-highest single-season total in Gophers history.
From the moment it ended, she couldn't wait to get back to work. The pent-up desire from her interrupted summer made her longing all the sharper, leaving Banham counting the days until Saturday's opener.
"When I'm playing now, I just want to go, go, go,'' she said. "Sometimes, I'm going too fast. I'm just really, really excited to be back.''