Just over a week ago the Gophers women’s basketball team was undefeated, both overall and at home, 1-0 in the young Big Ten season and ranked 12th in the country.
Things have changed, quickly.
Now, suddenly, the Gophers are struggling with a brutal stretch of their schedule looming.
The Gophers squandered a 17-point third-quarter lead Sunday against an Illinois team that had lost 29 straight Big Ten regular-season games and wound up losing 66-62 at Williams Arena. The Gophers have fallen to 12-2 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten with consecutive losses, and with consecutive games against ranked opponents looming, starting Wednesday at Michigan State.
“Obviously a tough one,” first-year coach Lindsay Whalen said. “A tough second half for us. Give [Illinois] credit. They never quit. They just wouldn’t go away. And then they got the momentum.”
The Gophers led by 17 early in the third, by 10 entering the fourth and by 12 after Kenisha Bell hit a jumper with 8 minutes, 37 seconds left.
And then: It was 23-7 Illinois the rest of the way, a stretch in which the Gophers shot 3-for-19 with six turnovers that the Illini (9-5, 1-2) turned into eight points.
The Gophers led 62-61 with 2:06 left after a Bell jumper, but Illinois finished the game on a 5-0 run, a stretch in which the home team’s possessions went like this: two missed free throws by Annalese Lamke with 1:21 left, a blocked Jasmine Brunson shot, a Bell turnover and two missed shots just before the buzzer.
“Obviously we’re going to take our mistakes and learn from them,” said Lamke, who scored 18 points, all in the first half. “But if we let this Illinois loss affect us for the rest of the season, we’re going to be stuck where we are right now. We have to move on and get better, because we have a really tough matchup coming against Michigan State.”
Playing against Illinois’ man-to-man defense in the first half, the Gophers were able to build a 14-point lead. Lamke led the way, scoring eight points as the Gophers finished the second quarter on an 18-2 run to go up 35-21 at the break.
But things changed. Particularly the Illini defense. Coach Nancy Fahey switched to a 2-3 zone. That plus an uptick in Illinois’ offensive efficiency proved deadly for the home team.
Lamke shot 0-for-9 in the second half. And, other than Brunson (a career-high 17 points), the Gophers struggled to find someone to shoot Illinois out of its zone.
And, as push came to shove late, some of the Gophers might have been pressing a bit.
“We started kind of forcing,” Whalen said. “Now it’s a tie game and we’re trying to fix it, solve it, all that. And they were active. They were playing more aggressively than we were in the second half.”
Brandi Beasley scored 18 points for Illinois, 14 in the second half, seven in the fourth quarter. Delano product Alex Wittinger had 11 points, all in the second half, and six blocks. Arieal Scott went 3-for-3 on three-pointers in the fourth quarter for all nine of her points.
It didn’t help that Whalen’s team is playing shorthanded. The Gophers are still without Gadiva Hubbard, who has yet to play following foot surgery. And top backup post player Palma Kaposi missed Sunday’s game because of an undisclosed injury.
Now the Gophers have a very short time to regroup before heading to Michigan State. To Brunson, the key is to play angry.
“With a sense of urgency,” she said. “We are lacking that, for sure, right now. We have to play [angry] and we have to play hungry.”