Carlie Wagner didn’t spend much time watching her young teammates in Saturday’s season opener. The Gophers guard was plenty busy herself, dropping a game-high 27 points on Harvard in a 103-87 victory at Williams Arena.
Besides, she already had seen enough of Jasmine Brunson, Gadiva Hubbard and Taiye Bello to know what to expect. After demonstrating their quickness and unflappability throughout fall practices, the three freshmen seamlessly introduced themselves to a wider audience. They were among six Gophers to score in double figures as the team won its season opener for the eighth consecutive year, pulling away in the second half before a crowd announced at 3,056.
Brunson was the lone rookie to start and had 15 points. Hubbard scored 16 and added a game-high eight assists and five steals, while Bello led the Gophers with 12 rebounds to go with 10 points.
Though Harvard made 16 three-pointers on 30 attempts, the Gophers overwhelmed the Crimson by forcing 22 turnovers. They converted those into 31 points, and they scored another 19 at the free-throw line thanks to their aggressive drives to the basket. The Gophers went to the line 27 times, while Harvard shot only three free throws.
The only time the freshman trio grew quiet was in the postgame interview session. They deferred to coach Marlene Stollings and Wagner, who were happy to sing their praises.
“I was very impressed,’’ Wagner said. “I thought they made a great debut. They really showed the crowd the style of play they’re going to bring to our team, and their hustle and work ethic.
“Everything they do for us, I thought they did great. I don’t think they could have had a much better first game.’’
The Gophers have nine newcomers on the roster, and two started Saturday. Brunson was joined by fifth-year transfer Whitney Tinjum, a former Chisago Lakes star who came to the Gophers last summer after two seasons at Bradley. Tinjum, a forward, scored 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
One notable absence for the Gophers was highly touted guard Kenisha Bell, who played at Bloomington Kennedy and transferred to the U last year after starting her career at Marquette. Bell did not play, and Stollings would say only that she was “unavailable.’’ The coach said Bell will travel to Tuesday’s game at VCU and will be available to play.
Stollings and her staff had been trying multiple starting combinations in practice, analyzing those groupings daily for the past week. She settled on a lineup of three guards — Brunson, Wagner and Allina Starr — along with Tinjum at forward and Jessie Edwards at center.
The Gophers’ improved quickness showed in their ability to pressure Harvard into turnovers. They logged 14 steals, which helped trigger 17 fast-break points. The Crimson kept the game close by taking advantage of open looks from three-point range, making four of seven in the early going to take an 18-16 lead.
An 8-0 run put the Gophers back in charge, and they stayed there until four consecutive three-pointers by Harvard tied it 40-40 with 5 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in the first half. The Gophers tightened their defense and finished the half with a 15-7 run, regaining a lead they maintained the rest of the game.
“They run the floor really, really well,’’ said Harvard guard Taylor Finley of Edina. “Coach [Kathy Delaney-Smith] was talking about how the first couple of steps they take are really quick. That was a game-changer, how they were able to be effective offensively because of their defense.’’
Stollings was delighted by the Gophers’ assured play and the comfort level of the three freshmen. With a wealth of new talent, though, she cautioned that the lineup could remain fluid.
“[The starters] earned it,’’ she said. “But I told them it’s still open for change. It’s still going to remain competitive, and I really like that as a coach.’’