MADISON, WIS. – Anyone anticipating the Gophers women’s basketball team to fade with the loss of its top player to injury might have been selling the resiliency of its players short.
Instead of falling apart without Rachel Banham, the Gophers have surged — even as Big Ten Conference play has began. Shae Kelley scored 13 of her 17 points in the second half and the Gophers extended their winning streak to 10 with a 72-60 victory over Wisconsin on Sunday at the Kohl Center.
Carlie Wagner added 14 points and Amanda Zahui B. had her 11th double-double of the season with 11 points and 12 rebounds for the Gophers (14-1, 3-0 Big Ten), whose winning streak is their longest since the 2005-06 season.
“The loss of Rachel was devastating to our team, and our kids are really close to her,” coach Marlene Stollings said of Banham, the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 10. “I think they’ve been really inspired and motivated to really perform at a high level for her, and we’ve challenged each of them with a couple of realistic individual goals.”
Stollings tied the best start to a season by a first-year Gophers coach, and she is their first first-year coach to open conference play with three victories.
“It’s an unforgiving league,” she said. “We know every night we have to bring our A-game, so to speak. … You’re tested every single night, but that’s exciting.”
Nicole Bauman scored 14 points to lead Wisconsin. Of the eight Badgers to play, four were from Minnesota: starters Tessa Cichy (Hill-Murray) and Cassie Rochel (Lakeville North) and reserves Cayla McMorris (Park Center) and AnnMarie Brown (St. Peter).
Behind a hot-shooting first half, the Gophers jumped out to leads of 19-8 and 29-14. The Badgers (5-8, 1-2) pulled within 34-28, but Shayne Mullaney — who finished with 11 points, six rebounds and seven assists — hit a three-pointer to slow the comeback, and Joanna Hedstrom followed with another three-pointer to send the Gophers into halftime with a 10-point lead.
The Gophers maintained that double-digit lead most of the second half. After Wisconsin pulled within 51-42 with 12:28 to go, the Gophers responded with a 15-4 run to go up 20 points. After Wisconsin closed within 68-57 with 1:26 to go, Wagner and Mullaney made layups in the final minute to cap off the victory.
“We knew it would take an army, pretty much our entire team to step up in certain areas to account for [Banham’s] loss,” Stollings said. “And they’ve really bought into that and really just stepped up in different areas. We’ve had different players step up — it seems like each and every night. But they’re very motivated to win for Rachel right now.”