EUGENE, Ore. – One of the biggest fans of Marlene Stollings’ Gophers offense just happens to be the coach she will be facing in Sunday’s second round of the women’s NCAA tournament.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves was invited to view Stollings’ practice last fall when he was in town recruiting Hopkins sophomore star Paige Bueckers.
“Very impressed with the speed with which they play,” said Graves, who stole one of Stollings’ fast-break drills. He called it fate that Minnesota ends up playing Oregon at Matthew Knight Arena.
“Two very good offensive teams with a lot of stars, a lot of really good shooters,” he said. “It should be a fun, fun game for everybody.”
If you like offense, you’re in for a treat.
In Division I, only Connecticut and Baylor average more than the Gophers’ 85.3 points per game. Oregon isn’t that far behind at ninth (82.1).
If the No. 10 seed Gophers (24-8) are going to upset the second-seeded Ducks (31-4) to reach the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2005, they will likely have to do it in a shootout. That’s fine with Stollings.
“They’re a very explosive offensive team,” she said, “So are the Gophers. We’re hoping for a thrilling matchup tomorrow night, one that hopefully college basketball fans will enjoy.”
Oregon is led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu, who averages 19.6 points. But the Ducks’ other four starters also average in double figures.
“That’s not something you face very often,” said Stollings, comparing Oregon to Ohio State in the Big Ten.
When it comes to offensive strengths, Minnesota relies heavily on a four-guard lineup that pushes the pace early and often. Stollings arrived from Virginia Commonwealth four years ago with the style of play she called “Fury.”
That name didn’t follow her but the brand of basketball came to Minneapolis. The Gophers run the floor, attack the basket and launch three-pointers like VCU did, but they’re doing it on a higher level.
Junior Kenisha Bell is the perfect orchestrator of Stollings’ offense because she only knows one speed: the maximum. Minnesota has the fastest tempo of any team in the nation, according to analytics site Her Hoops Stats.
Bell, who had 26 points in Friday’s 89-77 comeback win against No. 7 Green Bay, drove the ball right at the opposition and drew fouls time and time again. She went 14-for-17 from the foul line, including 11-for-12 in the fourth quarter.
Bell reminds the Ducks of UCLA guard Jordin Canada, a semifinalist for the Naismith Award given to the nation’s top player.
She and fellow starters Carlie Wagner, Gadiva Hubbard and Destiny Pitts are all similar in size at around 5-9, 5-10. What they lack in height, they make up for with shooting and driving ability and speed.
Playing fast does have its disadvantages.
“A team that plays such high-paced offense as we do, you’re going to give up more possessions,” Stollings said.
There were questions about whether that would work in the Big Ten, especially after the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament in consecutive years after getting there in Stollings’ first season in 2015.
Stollings stuck to her philosophy and it eventually paid off. She finally has a roster that fits her system.
“I feel like we have the right pieces of the puzzle for our offense: up-tempo, three-pointers, transition offense,” Wagner said. “We put a lot of work in during the offseason to be able to play at this level for 40 minutes.”
It might seem at times that the Gophers fall too much in love with three-point shooting. They led the Big Ten with 268 threes and ranked 16th nationally. They set an NCAA tournament school record with 10 threes Friday, but came in with only 34.5 percent of their offensive attempts from beyond the arc.
The Gophers are at their best when they get downhill and forcing turnovers. They proved that by defeating Iowa 90-89 and losing 90-88 to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. They shot 8-for-31 and 7-for-19 from three-point range in the two games.
Sunday’s game might come down to which team makes stops when it needs to down the stretch, though.
In Friday’s win, the Gophers held Green Bay scoreless in the last 3:14 and outscored the Phoenix 30-13 in the fourth quarter. They can defend better than people give them credit for, but offense is their calling card.
“This is our team playing our system for the first time at the highest level,” Stollings said. “You’re just looking at our players, our team being able to grasp it and the type of players we have to do it.”