Champaign, Ill. – The Gophers women’s basketball team dodged a potentially devastating loss on Sunday, and instead wrapped up the fourth seed in the Big Ten tournament with an 84-75 victory over lowly Illinois.
What that means is that the Gophers will have the shortest possible route to the tournament final — with their confidence not shot. They get a double bye with the rest of the top four (Ohio State, Maryland, Nebraska) and will open play in Indianapolis in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon. The Gophers will face the winner of Thursday’s game between Iowa and either Wisconsin or Northwestern.
The Gophers (22-7, 11-5) also avoided a defeat that the NCAA tournament selection committee certainly would have frowned upon if an at-large bid is the team’s ticket to the Big Dance.
The Gophers ended up tied for third in the Big Ten, their highest finish since the 2007-08 season, and two games behind conference champion Ohio State. Illinois (9-21) went 0-16 in the conference.
Coming off a home loss to Indiana, the Gophers led Illinois at halftime 37-30 despite making just nine of 36 shots from the field (five of 19 threes). That cold shooting carried over into the second half, when Illinois took its first and only lead. The Illini made their first seven shots and led by as many as eight. Delano native Alex Wittinger had 13 of her 20 points in third quarter.
The game turned when Wittinger sat down with her fourth foul with 2:31 left in the third quarter. From that point on, the Gophers outscored Illinois 37-20. Wittinger fouled out with 6:10 left in the game.
The Gophers scored 31 points in the fourth quarter on 53 percent shooting.
“When the ball starts falling like that, you gain the confidence and momentum back,” Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said in her postgame radio interview.
Taiye Bello and Carlie Wagner both recorded double-doubles and set career highs for rebounds in a game. Coming off the bench, Bello had 10 points and 16 rebounds — 12 on the offensive end — in just 20 minutes of playing time. She also had three blocks and three steals. Wagner had 21 points and 11 rebounds in her final regular-season game for the Gopher.
“Taiye was the difference in the game, no question,” Stollings said.
With the score tied at 55 early in the fourth quarter, Kenisha Bell made the first of two free-throw attempts and Bello cleaned up her miss on the second shot, extending the Gophers’ advantage to three. The lead grew to as many as 13 from there.
Bell led the Gophers with 24 points and also had seven assists and three steals. Destiny Pitts (15) and Gadiva Hubbard (10) also scored in double figures with Hubbard scoring all of her points in the fourth quarter.
Bell finished sixth in the Big Ten in scoring (19.6). She tied for first in assists (6.6) and was first in steals (2.8).