As a senior, Shayne Mullaney didn’t envision coming off the bench. The Gophers guard had started all but seven games over the first three seasons — including 51 in a row as a sophomore and junior — and didn’t anticipate a dramatic change in her role for her final Big Ten season.
But when coach Marlene Stollings moved her out of the starting lineup last month, Mullaney didn’t sulk or complain. She found fresh motivation as a reserve, and Thursday she scored in double figures for the sixth consecutive game in the Gophers’ 85-72 victory over Rutgers. Mullaney’s 17 points off the bench contributed to a balanced and consistent effort at Williams Arena, as the Gophers earned their first victory ever over Rutgers and their fifth win in the past six games.
Rachel Banham led the Gophers with 24 points on 10 of 19 shooting, and Carlie Wagner added 22, including hitting seven of seven from the free throw line. Joanna Hedstrom also came off the bench to score 11 points as the Gophers’ reserves outscored the Scarlet Knights’ bench 38-18.
Mullaney averaged 7.3 points per game in her first three seasons. Since moving to a reserve role in the second game of the Big Ten schedule, she has averaged 13 points per game while reducing her turnovers and remaining the Gophers’ leader in assists.
“It was different at first, coming off the bench,” said Mullaney, who started 10 of the Gophers’ first 12 games before her role changed. “But I think that surprisingly, I’ve been playing better [as a reserve].
“I’ve tried to use it as a source of motivation, and it’s motivated me to play better. Whatever coach asks of me, whatever’s best for the team, I’ve tried to embrace and accept that role.’’
Thursday, the Gophers (15-7, 7-4 Big Ten) used a 14-5 run late in the first quarter to gain a lead they never lost. Banham scored 19 in the first half, making eight of her first 13 shots.
Kahleah Copper led Rutgers (13-10, 4-7) with a game-high 31 points. The Scarlet Knights kept pace with the Gophers through the first half, shooting 52 percent as they pulled within 43-40 at halftime. But they cooled considerably after that, failing to score in the final 2 minutes, 41 seconds of the third quarter as the Gophers stretched a lead that grew as high as 19 points.
Stollings said that bringing Mullaney off the bench has been beneficial for the Gophers’ player rotation, and she likes the jolt of energy the guard supplies.
“Shayne could easily start, but we like the dynamic it brings [to use her as a reserve],” the coach said. “She didn’t hesitate for one moment, and she’s performed at a very high level.”
Mullaney said that observing from the bench has helped her lock into the game plan before taking the court. As a reserve, she has become more assertive on offense as well — something that continued Thursday, to Banham’s delight.
“[Mullaney] brings in a lot of variety, and she’s another person who can attack,” Banham said.
“That’s tough for people to guard. [Defenses are] going to be tight on me and Carly, and that opens it all up. That’s nice.”