It’s been a point of emphasis for several weeks, even something of a mission. While the Gophers are defined by their high-octane offense, they understand they won’t get where they want to go without shoring up their defense.
Thursday, they demonstrated they can excel at both in a 110-73 dismantling of Nebraska at Williams Arena. The Gophers (17-7, 9-4 Big Ten) broke 100 points for the fourth time this season, a program record, and saw five players hit double digits, led by 32 points from Rachel Banham, playing her first game since Sunday’s NCAA record-tying 60-point performance. But they were equally pleased with a defense that quieted one of the hottest teams in the league, lifting the Gophers into a tie with Michigan State for third in the conference.
Spotty defense has been the Gophers’ main weakness, and they have spent lots of time addressing it in practice over the past few weeks. Thursday, they held the Cornhuskers (16-8, 7-6) to five points in the second quarter, outrebounded them 57-35 and put the brakes on their best players — 6-4 forward Jessica Shepard and sharpshooting guard Natalie Romeo — to win for the seventh time in eight games.
“We had to come out and play with high intensity and get up on them and rebound,” said Carlie Wagner, who scored 20 points.
“Rebounding was huge. And our big goal was to get [Shepard] off the block, and find [Romeo] and shut her down at the three-point line.
“We had to be really focused on the game plan, really work together and communicate.”
The Gophers didn’t stray from their true identity. Playing before an announced 3,945, they forced a fast pace that wore down Nebraska and shot a season-high 55 percent, running up a lead that reached 42 points in the second half.
But they supplemented their offense with smart, sustained defense over the final 30 minutes. Shepard is the Big Ten’s top freshman, and Romeo is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Each got 12 points in a tight first quarter that featured 14 lead changes.
They combined to score only 13 more in the final three quarters. The Cornhuskers made two of 16 shots in the second quarter as the Gophers outscored them 24-5; in the third, the Gophers began with a 16-2 run and held Romeo and Shepard to one basket each.
“I definitely feel the last few weeks, we’ve picked up our defense and been a lot more intense and physical in the post,” said Gophers center Jessie Edwards, who finished with eight points and nine rebounds. “We’ve been practicing the last several weeks getting the bigs out of their scoring range. That’s a big focus for us defensively.”
After scoring 112 in Sunday’s double-overtime victory at Northwestern, the Gophers reached triple digits in back-to-back games for the first time in program history. The 110 points also tied the most ever scored against Nebraska.
“We have nights when we go off and can score,” Wagner said. “But to go up against a team that’s been on a win streak and doing well in the Big Ten, to come together and play rock-solid defense and really communicate and move the ball well, we learned what we’re capable of.”