The way Gophers guard Kenisha Bell described it, the lane just cleared.
It was late in the fourth quarter of the Gophers’ battle with 12th-ranked Syracuse. To that point, in an up-and-down second half, Bell had missed six of eight shots. In the fourth quarter alone to that point, the senior had turned the ball over three times.
But then the lane cleared.
“I knew it was my time to take it,” Bell said. “Once I made it, I was like, ‘Finally!’ ”
Bell’s spinning layup with 1 minute, 14 seconds left dropped as she was fouled. She made the free throw, putting the Gophers up six and icing the 20th-ranked Gophers’ come-from-behind 72-68 victory over the Orange in Thursday night’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge women’s basketball game at Williams Arena.
For Bell, it wasn’t what she had done to that point, it was how she finished. Ditto for the Gophers, now 6-0 in coach Lindsay Whalen’s first season. Up most of the game, the Gophers had a turnover-fueled, mid-fourth-quarter funk, allowing the Orange (6-2) to turn a seven-point Gophers lead into a 61-55 edge with 3:36 left.
But, out of a timeout, things changed.
The Gophers responded with a 12-0 run. They finished the quarter 17-7, a gut-check victory over a ranked team that could reverberate into NCAA selection committee meetings in March.
“We were going to play through it no matter what,” Whalen said. “We’re going to fight, keep going. We stayed poised.”
It was an impressive victory won with aggressive and physical play. The Gophers had a 50-33 rebounding edge. They turned 23 offensive boards into 16 second-chance points. They had 31 free-throw attempts to Syracuse’s six.
Bell finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. Junior forward Taiye Bello had yet another double-double, with 20 points and 18 boards. Of those rebounds, 10 came on the offensive end, meaning she rebounded a full 23.3 percent of her team’s 43 missed shots.
Kiara Lewis led Syracuse with 14 points. The combination of Bell and junior guard Jasmine Brunson held Orange star guard Tiana Mangakahia to 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting.
The Gophers had started the season 5-0 against lesser competition. They knew Thursday’s game would be a test of their progress, and if they didn’t ace the test, they did well enough to make up for 34.8-percent shooting with rebounding and defense.
Bell said it was the most exciting game of her career.
“We’ve had games where we played really close,” she said. “This one we had the crowd (an announced 4,178) involved. The players were competitive. Everyone was fighting to get this win.”
The comeback began coming out of a timeout when the Gophers broke the Syracuse 1-2-2 press. Bell got the ball to sophomore guard Destiny Pitts, who drained a three with 3:33 remaining.
Senior center Annalese Lamke blocked a shot at the other end, and Bell scored on the break. A Lamke steal turned into another Bell drive and the Gophers were up 62-61 with 2:35 left. Moments later, Bell drove the lane, spun and scored to clinch a signature victory.
“This shows how talented we are,” Bell said. “We played as a team, throughout the whole game. We trust each other on the court, and it shows.”
There is still work to do. The Gophers have to shoot better, execute more efficiently in the half-court. But they’ve already shown an ability to defend — Syracuse was held 10 points under its average — and a poise that allowed for Thursday’s comeback.