Even now, well into her first season coaching the Gophers women’s basketball team, Lindsay Whalen is learning things about her team.
This week, for example, she learned that she had a team that was tired of losing, was determined to stick together through difficult stretches, that wasn’t ready to quit.
That was evident Sunday at Williams Arena, when the Gophers shook off a horrific first half with a remarkable second in a 60-46 victory over 17th-ranked and Big Ten-leading Rutgers.
“More than anything it shows younger players what can happen when you come together as a team,’’ said Whalen, whose team has won two in a row and has two victories over ranked teams this season. “You have to work as hard as possible for everything.’’
That’s exactly what the Gophers (15-7, 4-7) did. Against the best defensive team in the conference, they outworked the Scarlet Knights (17-5, 9-2) at their own game. Minnesota stayed within six points at halftime despite making just one second-quarter field goal and just four in the first half. And then the Gophers used their defense to turn the game around in the second half.
Taiye Bello scored 11 points and had a whopping, career-high 21 rebounds, tied for the most by a Big Ten player this season. She was part of a smaller starting lineup — Bello, Irene Garrido Perez, Jasmine Brunson, Destiny Pitts and Kenisha Bell — that Whalen has used in the past two games, both victories. That starting lineup played the entire second half.
Bell shook off a six-turnover first half and scored 19 points with five assists. Pitts scored 14, Brunson 13. Together they attempted 31 free throws, making 25, while Rutgers as a team was 5-for-10.
“I think we’re finding out how to keep going,’’ Bell said. “We’re not playing one half and feeling OK about it. We’re not letting up. We’re finding out how hard we can play.’’
The Gophers trailed 31-26 with 3:36 left in the third quarter. That’s when things changed. Bell drove, scored, was fouled and hit the free throw. That started an 11-0 run that also included three-point plays by Bello and Brunson.
Rutgers was never able to regain momentum, shooting 10-for-28 in the second half. Over the final 13:36 the Gophers outscored Rutgers 34-15.
Afterward, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer was blunt. “We didn’t come to play,’’ she said. “I think we halfway went at it. Minnesota wanted it more. I’m surprised they didn’t ask why we’re here.’’
The better question is where has this Gophers team been?
“We’ve gone through our slump of losing,’’ Bello said. “We just wanted it more. We needed it as a team.’’
After the game Whalen compared Bello to former Lynx teammate Rebekkah Brunson. “You can’t stop heart,’’ Whalen said. “I played with Rebekkah the last eight years. Taiye has the same skills and all the same heart.’’
Whalen was wearing the ring she got for being a part of the 2010 FIBA world championship team. She wouldn’t say why, but it must have been a good motivator.