Indianapolis – When the Gophers needed a big play on Thursday night, it was Rachel Banham who delivered as she has for much of the season.
The 5-9 guard kept her eyes focused to her left as if to pass, then from the right wing hit a three-pointer with 55.6 seconds to play in regulation to send the must-win game against Wisconsin to overtime.
In the extra period, she scored six points, including the final go-ahead basket with a finger-roll layup.
With a 13-7 scoring advantage in overtime, the Gophers earned the 74-68 come-from-behind victory over the Badgers in the opening round of the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“I thought we got ourselves down in the first half,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said. “[Wisconsin] did a great job making shots in the first half they normally don’t make.”
This was just the second time in seven years the Gophers won their first game of the tournament.
The first half was troublesome for the Gophers (20-11) who shot 9-for-31 from the field. They turned it around in a big way in the second, shooting 48.5 percent.
“For me, [the shots] were not falling,” Banham said of the early struggles. “I had really good looks. I think I was pressing a little too much.”
She converted just two of her 10 shots in the first half but finished with a game-high 22 points, 15 in the second half and overtime.
The Gophers captain said that she might have been a bit tense, which led to her missing three layups after steals.
Wisconsin (10-19) led by 14 points at halftime after shooting 53 percent from the field, including six of 12 from beyond the arc.
“I think a few of us were hanging our heads [during halftime], and I was down on myself with my shots,” Banham said. “Coach came in and said to stay positive. Once the second half started we were like, ‘We have to fight, we are not losing this, we don’t want to go home.’ ”
Minnesota managed to rally around that message and clawed its way back. Kayla Hirt, who scored 14 points, hit a jumper to start a 12-2 run early in the second half. That five-minute spurt cut the Badgers’ lead to six.
Wisconsin continued to fight to maintain its lead, stretching it out to 10 twice during the final seven minutes of play.
The final run that led to Banham’s shot started with a three-pointer by Sari Noga with 2:43 left in the second half. The Gophers defense tightened and held the Badgers scoreless for the remainder of regulation.
“Rachel had great penetration, and she dished it out to me,” said Noga, who scored all nine of her points after halftime. “Once I had the open look, I had to take it, and just knowing the position we were in, those shots had to go in.”
Amanda Zahui B., the Big Ten’s freshman of the year, had her 15th double-double of the year with 12 points and 19 rebounds.
The Gophers’ late-season run allowed them to reach 20 wins for the first time since their last NCAA tournament appearance in 2009. The latest RPI report has Minnesota No. 38.
Borton was asked if this win and the team winning six of its last eight regular-season games solidify the Gophers’ NCAA tournament bid.
She responded with an emphatic, “absolutely.”