During its first two weeks of fall practice, the Gophers women’s basketball team has worked on becoming tougher, playing more consistent defense and running a higher-tempo offense.
But coach Pam Borton has been most impressed with something she hasn’t had to teach.
Her compact, 10-player roster has shown an uncommon commitment and maturity, Borton said, lending it a solid foundation for a season that begins Oct. 29 with an exhibition game against Winona State. The Gophers have a clear leader in junior guard Rachel Banham, named last week as one of 25 players likely to contend for the Wade Trophy as Division I player of the year. She will be surrounded by a stronger and more balanced group of teammates, Borton said, including experienced seniors such as Micaëlla Riché and promising newcomers such as Amanda Zahui B.
After going 18-14 last season, the Gophers will be seeking greater consistency in all areas. As much as Borton appreciates their improved talent, she believes their collective dedication could be their most valuable asset.
“It’s easier when you don’t have to coach work ethic or attitude or effort,’’ said Borton, in her 12th season with the Gophers. “As coaches, we can just worry about getting better on the floor. We don’t have distractions or other things that are taking energy away from the whole team.
“We have a lot of experienced, productive returners, and the chemistry is huge. They’re all on the same page. They like and respect each other, and they’re all about the same thing: winning and working hard and developing. And I can’t say we’ve always been like that.’’
Banham has 1,243 points in two seasons, putting her on pace to surpass Lindsay Whalen as the Gophers’ all-time leading scorer. She was a first-team all-Big Ten choice and an honorable mention All-America as a sophomore despite chronic knee pain caused by patellar tendinitis.
Surgery in June eased her discomfort, and Banham said she expects to be pain-free eventually. During her recovery, she maintained her fitness with cycling and pool workouts and built more upper-body strength. That, Borton predicted, will help Banham absorb more hard contact in the lane and play with greater toughness.
Other players remade their bodies as well. Guard/forward Kayla Hirt lost 12 pounds and regained some quickness. Forward Jackie Johnson, used sparingly as a freshman last season, gained 30 pounds of muscle to better endure the rigors of Big Ten play; Borton said she also is faster and is in the best shape of anyone on the team.
The 6-5 Zahui B., a redshirt freshman from Sweden, dropped 20 pounds and is impressing coaches with her passing ability and assertiveness.
That commitment to conditioning, Banham said, was the first sign that all 10 players were devoted to improving the team’s fortunes. With everyone pulling in the same direction, she has set a goal of leading the group more effectively.
“In the past, you always had to kind of back up someone else or do extra on your own to help everyone else out,’’ Banham said. “This year, you don’t have to worry about picking up the slack for someone else. You know you can count on everyone, and we all have the same goal.
“I worked a lot last year on being a leader, and this year I have to be even better. I need to know every position and know everything that’s going on. And I still have to be a scoring leader, but I have to get things going on defense as well.’’
Banham believes the first step to gaining consistency begins with shoring up the defense. That has been a focus in early practice sessions. On offense, Borton wants Banham to set the tempo, but the versatility of the Gophers’ guards will allow for ball-handling duties to be spread around.
Borton anticipates the Gophers’ post play will be stronger with Zahui B. complementing Riché, who was the team’s second-leading scorer (13.2 points per game) and leading rebounder (7.7) last season. The small roster means that both freshmen — guards Joanna Hedstrom of Minnetonka and Stabresa McDaniel of Dallas — are likely to play.
Riché said they got off to a good start in summer practices, when older players modeled the kind of effort and responsibility they hope will push the team to greater heights.
“I trust that every single one of my teammates is going to do what they can to make themselves better, to make me better, to make the team better,’’ she said. “The way each of us has committed and bought in to our goals is definitely different this year.’’