While everyone wanted to talk about the 60 points she scored against Northwestern, Rachel Banham made it clear she didn’t see her record-shattering performance as the most important thing that happened Sunday.
“I’m just glad we got the win, to be honest,” the Gophers guard said. “We needed it.”
As much as Banham enjoyed tying the NCAA single-game scoring mark, she reiterated this week that she didn’t return for a fifth season to pile up records. Her greatest ambition is to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in her career. That means her team’s focus will shift to a different number Thursday when it faces Nebraska at Williams Arena: the Gophers’ RPI of 86, which they must lower considerably to contend for an at-large berth into the 64-team NCAA tournament.
With two-thirds of the Big Ten schedule complete, 10 of the Gophers’ 12 league games have come against teams that are ninth or lower in the conference standings. That, combined with a weak nonconference schedule, has inflated their RPI despite a 16-7 record and 8-4 league mark.
The Gophers sit in fourth place in the Big Ten with much at stake in their final six regular-season games. Finishing fourth or higher will secure a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, a significant advantage as they pursue the league tournament title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with it. To improve their chances for an at-large bid, they will need some victories against the powerhouses remaining on the schedule, including No. 5 Maryland, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 17 Michigan State.
Coach Marlene Stollings has begun doing the postseason math, trying to calculate exactly what the Gophers must do to crack the NCAA tournament field. She declined Tuesday to reveal her findings, preferring to concentrate on the most basic element: earning as many victories as possible.
“Just win, and you don’t have to worry,” said Stollings, whose team is 6-1 in its past seven games. “The focus is to just win, and to really take care of business here at home.
“This stretch is the most crucial. We know that. Our goals are to go to the NCAA tournament, and we have three teams ahead of us in the standings still on the schedule in late February. So it’s a great time for that confidence to be building, the momentum to be building.”
Sunday’s 112-106 double-overtime victory at Northwestern gave the Gophers an emotional lift going into the rugged final third of the Big Ten schedule. They trailed by as many as 10 points in the third quarter but forced both the first and second overtimes with late rallies, steadied by Banham’s poise as well as her hot hand.
After starting league play with a 2-3 record, the Gophers have followed their leader into a groove. The trick now will be keeping that going as the schedule become more challenging. Following home games against Nebraska and Iowa, they play at Indiana, then end the regular season against the league’s three ranked teams — with two of those games on the road.
ESPN’s Charlie Creme, who projects the women’s NCAA tournament field, is not bullish on the Gophers’ chances. He said via Twitter that the Gophers’ strength of schedule has hurt them, adding no team ever has received an at-large bid with an RPI as low as 87, the Gophers’ ranking on Monday.
“Not even close to that low, in fact,” Creme tweeted.
To move up, Banham and her teammates said they must tighten their defense and continue to solidify their inside presence. The Gophers also are counting on Banham to maintain her dazzling play, a burden she is happy to take on in the pursuit of something larger.
“The next step is to get my team to the NCAA tournament,” Banham said, “… That’s honestly what’s on my mind, is what we need to do [to get there].”