After traveling to South Bend, Ind., on Tuesday, the Gophers had to wait a day to get a look at the site of Friday's NCAA tournament opener against DePaul. They practiced at Bethel College in nearby Mishawaka on Wednesday afternoon, getting ready to face the quick, hot-shooting guards that make the Blue Demons go, then made their first appearance on the Notre Dame campus Thursday morning.
The Gophers kicked off a day of press conferences in the Monogram Room at Notre Dame's Joyce Center before a serious, 90-minute practice on the Purcell Pavilion floor. Coach Marlene Stollings said she was trying to find the proper balance between allowing players to enjoy the moment and making sure they are sharp for Friday's 4 p.m. game. "We're not just happy to be here,'' she said. "We intend to make some noise in this tournament.''
Stollings gave the Gophers four days off after they were bounced from the Big Ten tournament on March 6, allowing her heavily used starters to get some recovery time. Before the NCAA field was announced Monday, they "cleaned some things up,'' she said, tightening the screws on a defense that faltered too frequently as the team lost three of its past four games. The Gophers also installed some fresh twists on both offense and defense.
The past three days were devoted to learning about the Blue Demons, a very interesting opponent. DePaul is coached by Doug Bruno, an evangelist of the women's game who is in his 29th season of coaching at his alma mater. The Blue Demons are hot, with 13 victories in their past 14 games, and they are experienced, with 13 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
They start four guards who employ a wicked pressing defense while shooting lights-out from long range. DePaul set a school record with 346 three-pointers this season and is second in Division I with 10.5 per game. They also are second in scoring offense (86.8 points per game), steals (12.4 per game) and turnover margin (+10.79). They have made 10 or more three-pointers in 19 games this season, despite losing one of their best shooters--senior Megan Rogowski--to an ACL tear on Jan. 2.
Those four starting guards, including former Richfield star Jessica January, are all 5-8 or shorter. Junior forward Megan Podkowa, at 6-2, gives up three inches to Gophers center Amanda Zahui B. Stollings said the Gophers have to exploit the height advantage they have with Zahui and 6-1 forward Shae Kelley while handling that press and challenging the Blue Demons' shooters.
"We'll be looking to get the ball to (Zahui and Kelley) as much as possible,'' she said. "Taking care of the ball with their extreme pressure, and handling it throughout the game, will be important. Something they're very good at is they're relentless, so you can't have lapses where you relax. Being poised is going to be very important for us.
"Defensively, we can't let them have easy looks from the three-point line. They're deadly. They take 30 threes a game, and they make 10. That’s at a higher rate than anybody we've faced all year.''
Guard Shayne Mullaney noted that all of the Blue Demons--even Podkowa--can hit from three-point range. "We have to focus on keeping the hand up and not letting any of them get open looks,'' Mullaney said. And on offense, Mullaney added, the Gophers must be patient and concentrate on making good passes.
Some other tidbits from Thursday's activities:
--Stollings said many alumni have contacted the Gophers to wish them well, and some stopped by practice at Williams Arena before the team left for South Bend. Her parents will be coming to Friday's game, driving over from their home in Ohio. "My mom didn't want to miss it,'' said Stollings, who like her players is a first-timer to the NCAA tournament experience.
--As a newbie, Stollings is the odd coach out in this group of four. Bruno has coached DePaul for 29 years, with 586 victories. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw is in her 28th season with the Irish and has won 694 games. Montana coach Robin Selvig has led the Lady Griz for 37 years, with 845 victories. It's a remarkable bunch.
--January said she is looking forward to playing her hometown university. She hasn't played with or against any of the Gophers, but she attended camps at the U where some players were providing demonstrations. And when she played AAU ball with the Minnesota Stars, Gophers freshman Carlie Wagner was part of a younger team with that organization.
"We're all familiar faces,'' she said. "It will be fun.''
January is averaging 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. She said she is much more comfortable this season after adjusting to the college game as a freshman last year.
"She's a good all-around player and defender,'' teammate Brittany Hrynko said. "When I'm not scoring and Chanise (Jenkins) is not scoring, she'll step up. If we need a stop, Jess will make it. She brings a lot to our team.''
Check back tomorrow for a pregame blog, plus game coverage in the Star Tribune and on startribune.com.