EUGENE, ORE. – Playing to extend the season for three seniors put a sense of urgency into the Gophers women’s basketball team well before it faced Oregon in Sunday’s NCAA tournament second round.
In order to send out Carlie Wagner, Jessie Edwards and Bryanna Fernstrom the best way possible, their younger teammates had to pull together and help them win some big games.
If they hadn’t beaten Michigan, Maryland and Iowa in the last month, the Gophers probably wouldn’t be an NCAA tournament team. The program’s first victory in the Big Dance since 2009 on Friday against Wisconsin-Green Bay gave the seniors the best memory of their careers, no matter what happened next.
“For the seniors, it means so much because this was our last opportunity,” Edwards said. “It’s my first time in the NCAA tournament. And it’s our last chance to play basketball with this team. Just being with this team and experiencing the NCAA is an once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s really special.”
Wagner and Fernstrom both played in the NCAA tournament as freshmen in 2015. Wagner was a starting shooting guard when Marlene Stollings, in her first season coaching the Gophers, lost 79-72 to DePaul in the first round. Fernstrom was a reserve center for Iowa State, which lost a first-round game to Dayton.
Wagner’s parents and die-hard Gophers fans from her hometown in New Richland, Minn., couldn’t make the trip to see her play the opening rounds in Eugene.
“They had a big party going on at home with our family and friends,” Wagner said. “They were cheering and blowing up my phone the whole game [vs. Green Bay]. That was fun. Senior year, to win that first game, was so much fun and exciting. I think it’s really just given this team confidence [for next year].”
Fernstrom, a Center City, Minn., native, said she expected to play in the NCAA tournament every year of her college career after making it the first time.
“I don’t think I realized how amazing it was the first time,” she said. “Now that I wasn’t in it for a couple years, I realize how blessed I am to be a part of it again my senior year. We weren’t just satisfied to be in the first round this year.”
Oregon sophomore All-America guard Sabrina Ionescu entered Sunday with the NCAA triple-double record with 10 in her career. She came one assist and three rebounds short of her 11th Sunday in the Ducks’ 101-73 victory over the Gophers.
Ionescu, who had 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes Friday vs. Seattle, said she doesn’t think about reaching that mark each game.
“On the defensive end I try and get as many rebounds as I can,” she said. “I just try to get my teammates involved. They get in the right spots in order for them to score. I think we’re getting better in understanding and playing together. Then, I just score if I have to if we need it. But I definitely don’t think about it.”
Gophers junior Kenisha Bell came one rebound short in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. of the program’s first triple-double since Amanda Zahui B. in 2013. She also twice came a few rebounds away this season.
“A player that can do everything is important for someone who wants to go to the next level,” Bell said. “It keeps happening that I get short some way somehow, but I’m going to keep working at it.”
The Gophers broke the school record for most field goals (997), points (2,803) and three-pointers (297) in a season.