Sunday’s game was barely 2 minutes old when Kenisha Bell landed awkwardly on her right leg, turning her ankle, collapsing to the Williams Arena court.
The announced 5,869 fans went silent as Bell was helped off the court and down the stairs to the training room.
By the time Bell returned to the game moments later the Gophers were down seven to Penn State, but it didn’t last. With Bell playing through the pain and the Gophers women’s basketball team playing through the roof, the Gophers scored the next 16 points, taking control of the game for good.
The final: Gophers 97, Penn State 67. It seemed like the entire 40-minute affair was one long Gophers run.
With balanced scoring fans have not seen this season and a pace that resulted in 22 fast-break points, the Gophers (19-7, 8-7 Big Ten) won their sixth straight conference game, tied for the second-longest streak in program history.
The Gophers moved into a four-way tie for fifth place in the Big Ten, one game behind Michigan with three conference games remaining. The top four finishers get a double-bye in the Big Ten's postseason tournament,
What ended as a feel-good rout began with a felt-bad ankle twist.
“It was nerve-racking, for sure,” Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen said of watching her star guard go down. “But I knew Key is tough.”
Said Bell: “I went downstairs and tightened up my ankle braces and my shoes, ran a little back and forth downstairs, then came back up. I just got to fight through the pain. I knew my team would appreciate me being tough, coming out and helping out as much as I can. I know it’s best not to show it on your face when you’re in pain. One of the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan, played with the flu and didn’t show it. You’ve just got to fight through the pain.”
There may not be a better analogy for a team that, after a 12-0 start, lost seven of eight conference games. The Gophers have fought through that and emerged on the other side.
On Sunday, the Gophers scored a season high in points in dealing the Lady Lions (10-15, 3-11) their sixth loss in a row. Their shooting percentage (54.3) and three-pointers made (9-for-18) were both highs for conference play.
But what was most impressive was the balance. All five starters scored in double figures. Bell had 17 points and seven assists and Destiny Pitts had 22 points — her third straight game with 22 or more — and six assists. No surprise there.
But Jasmine Brunson, taken out of the starting lineup at one point during the losing streak, scored 17 points. Attacking all game, she had three three-point plays. Taiye Bello had 13 rebounds to go with 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting.
Irene Garrido Perez, making Penn State pay for double teams all game, hit four of six three-pointers and had a career-high 16 points with three assists. As a result the Gophers are now within a game of matching the seven-game conference winning streak by the 2002-03 team.
“Some nights the shots are going in,” Whalen said. “It gets contagious. Everyone is playing with confidence right now.”
The Gophers ended the first quarter on a 26-8 run, then scored the first nine points of the second to go up by 20. Up 25 at the half, Minnesota scored the first seven of the third quarter to push the lead to 32. It hit 36 midway through the fourth quarter.
The result was a laugher just as things are getting really serious. Now above .500 in conference play, the Gophers finish the regular season with three teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25: at Maryland, at Rutgers and home vs. Michigan State.
“We’ve gotten this far by doing it together,” Whalen said. “By working hard, doing all the extra stuff. It’s the players who have put the time in, and now they’re finding some success together on the court, which is really cool.”