After she had scored a career-high 22 points to help the Gophers women’s basketball team beat Southern Methodist on Sunday, Sari Noga made sure to say thanks.
It has quickly become a tradition as the Gophers make their way through the women’s NIT. Noga, one of two seniors on the team, thanks her teammates for letting her play another game. “I’m not ready for it to be done,” Noga said.
But now it will get a little more difficult.
The Gophers (22-12) are on the road for the first time in the WNIT. The Gophers will play at South Dakota State (24-9) in Thursday’s third-round game, with the winner facing either Indiana or Northwestern in the quarterfinals.
The Jackrabbits — the Summit League regular-season champs — have won 15 of their past 17 games, are unbeaten at home this season (16-0) and have a roster full of players from Minnesota who would like nothing better than to beat the Gophers.
The Gophers are also a bit beat up. Gophers coach Pam Borton said star guard Rachel Banham is expected to play despite a mid-right foot sprain that kept her out most of the second half of Sunday’s victory. Backup guard Stabresa McDaniel is expected to miss the game because of concussion-like symptoms.
That gives the Gophers, who already had two players out with injuries, a seven-player roster against a deep SDSU team.
“In this game in particular we have to be pretty mentally tough,” Borton said. “We have to be locked into what we’re doing. We have to be the more aggressive team. We have to make sure our defense and rebounding are solid. I think it comes down to mental toughness. I believe we can go in there and win.”
The Gophers also have to hope Banham is healthy enough to be effective and that the Gophers don’t experience the foul trouble they battled in the SMU game when freshman center Amanda Zahui B. was limited to 22 minutes.
The positive thing to come out of that game, though, was some surprising balance. With Banham out and Zahui battling foul trouble, other players stepped up.
Noga had a career high in points. Kayla Hirt scored 12 points, with four assists. Mikayla Bailey had her first career double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) and freshman Joanna Hedstrom played effectively (six rebounds, three assists) in 23 minutes.
“The entire year I’ve been trying to learn from the guards in practice,” Hedstrom said. “It was fun to get out there and play. It was good to gain confidence. We had to grind out those last 10 minutes. We had to win it for Rachel.”
Said Borton: “I have always known this team has fighters. We’ve got kids who step up when they need to.’’
Now the Gophers have to beat a well-tested Jackrabbits team whose nonconference victories included a four-point win over Penn State and, most recently, a victory over Creighton. South Dakota State is also accustomed to winning at home.
“We’ve played well on the road this year,” Noga said. “Every game, we come into it ready to play. I think we know a lot of the girls on that team. I know a lot of ’em. So it will be fun to battle against them.’’