In the back corner of the Gophers' locker room late Thursday night, Kayla Hirt sat next to her pal Amanda Zahui B. and polished off the last of a postgame dinner in a styrofoam box. The slogan "Refuse to Lose!'' was still written on the whiteboard at the front of the room, more than half an hour after the Gophers had beaten Purdue 82-78 in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.
Hirt came off the bench to play a key role Thursday, scoring eight points--all in the second half--and filling in very nicely for Zahui when the center got into foul trouble. The game looked like it might be a blowout early, but the Gophers' inconsistency on both offense and defense turned it into a nail-biter. While they weren't at their best, they did prove again that they relish a good fight. And they often come out on top; the Gophers now are 8-2 this season in games decided by four or fewer points.
Zahui fouled out with 37 seconds left. Hirt made four free throws in the final 28 seconds, and with the Gophers clinging to a four-point lead, she grabbed a rebound of a Purdue miss with six seconds left and drew a foul. "She's very capable in those moments, and she likes those moments,'' coach Marlene Stollings said.
The Gophers missed six of their first 13 free throws, but they won because they were able to draw fouls and sharpen up at the line in the second half. Their final 15 points came on free throws.
"I think our team just realizes what we need to do when it comes to the end of games,'' Hirt said. "I feel like our team loses focus a lot of times throughout the game when we get ahead. That’s where the inconsistency comes.
"We focus better when we're under pressure. We realized it was going to come down to free throws, and missing free throws was going to be unacceptable.''
The Gophers now face No. 3 seed Ohio State in the quarterfinals in the last game of Friday's session, at approximately 8:30 p.m. The Gophers beat the Buckeyes 76-72 in Columbus in the teams' only regular-season game.
--Shayne Mullaney scored 19 points, a career high, with 11 of those in the second half. Her three-pointer that restored the Gophers' lead with four minutes left was huge. That was the only three-pointer the Gophers made in the second half on 11 attempts. Mullaney also went six-for-six at the free-throw line in the final 1:16.
--Stollings and forward Shae Kelley both said the Gophers must buckle down on defense. That has been a frequent issue for them; on Thursday, Kelley said they "kind of got relaxed'' early in the second half, allowing Purdue's Whitney Bays and Liza Clemons to beat them inside consistently. In the loss to Iowa, the Gophers weren't able to disrupt the Hawkeyes' perimeter shooting.
"Defensively, I think we have to stay a little bit more consistent and tighten up what we're doing,'' Stollings said. "We play multiple defenses, and I thought we lost some coverages there to start the second half. (Purdue) adjusted a little bit, and we needed to adjust a little bit quicker to them.
"With Clemons, I thought we let her get a little too deep at the basket. I would like to shore that up a bit.''
--Kelley is averaging 23.7 points over the past four games and has scored 20 or more in three of those, including her 26-point performance Thursday. For the season, she has scored 20 or more points in 13 games.
--Zahui got her 40th career double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
--Announced attendance for the evening session was 3,681, including the Gophers fans with the giant Stollings and Zahui heads; the busload of supporters from New Richland, Carlie Wagner's hometown; and the Blanket Lady, who clearly brought some good karma.