It’s a story Marlene Stollings has told throughout the season. On the first day of basketball practice last fall, the new Gophers coach had her team sit on the floor in a darkened Williams Arena and look up at the last banner commemorating an NCAA tournament appearance.
That was hung in 2009. Stollings challenged the Gophers to end that five-season drought, and Monday, they got the invitation they had pursued. The Gophers will open play in the NCAA tournament Friday as the No. 8 seed in the Oklahoma City region, facing No. 9 seed DePaul at Notre Dame.
The team viewed the selection show at Williams Arena, which was turned into a giant rec room with the lowered center scoreboard serving as a big-screen TV. With about 200 fans joining them, the Gophers leaped out of their folding chairs on the court when their school’s name flashed on the screen, hugging and whooping amid a spray of Silly String.
The announcement marked the high point of an emotional season, punctuated by a season-ending injury to star guard Rachel Banham in December that threatened to derail their quest for the program’s ninth NCAA tournament invitation. But there were no tears Monday, only an outpouring of joy.
“The goal when I came here was to make it to this tournament, and we’ve done that,” said senior forward Shae Kelley, who transferred from Old Dominion. “The excitement didn’t hit me until we were in front of the screen and the first bracket came out, and then our name popped up.
“It’s just an exciting moment. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. It’s a blessing.”
DePaul is 26-7 and won its second consecutive Big East tournament title after finishing as the conference’s co-champion in the regular season. The Blue Demons will make their 13th consecutive tournament appearance, and they are such mainstays that they held what was billed as their “annual Selection Monday party.”
The Gophers fall at the other end of the spectrum, as wide-eyed newbies. They will return to the site of their last appearance, when they sprang a surprise on host Notre Dame six years ago. The No. 10 seed that year, the Gophers beat the seventh-seeded Irish before falling to Texas A&M in the second round.
That ended a run of seven tournament appearances from 2002 to ’09, highlighted by the program’s lone trip to the Final Four in 2004 and a Sweet 16 berth in 2005. Coach Pam Borton led them to six of those, but she was fired last spring after missing the NCAA tournament five years in a row.
Stollings, who developed a reputation as a quick-change artist in turning around programs at Winthrop and Virginia Commonwealth, was hired in April and made a swift return to the tournament her top priority.
“It’s thrilling,’’ she said. “I’m just so happy for our kids. For it to happen so quickly is just a testament to our young ladies, as well as our coaching staff and all the hours and time they put in.
“At that moment in September, at our first team meeting, we set the goal that we wanted to return to the NCAA tournament and we wanted to do it this year. We didn’t know we were going to lose Rachel, but it was just an amazing run by these young ladies. And here we are.”
The invitation capped a resurgent season for the Gophers, whose 22 regular-season victories equal the second-most in school history. They lost only one of their first 15 games, and their 16-2 start was the best 18-game mark in program history. Despite the loss of Banham, the second-leading scorer in Gophers history, they were ranked as high as No. 21 in the Associated Press poll in January, marking their return to the top 25 after a nine-year absence.
The team has not played since losing to Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on March 6. With the Gophers being newcomers to the NCAA hoopla, Stollings said she wants to keep the pressure low and make sure her team is enjoying the experience as it prepares for DePaul.
“It’s a new season, and I’m really excited,” center Amanda Zahui B. said. “We don’t do this every day. We just want to have fun and work hard.”