Following the regular-season finale at Williams Arena, the Gophers women’s basketball team said over and over that Sunday afternoon was all about its two seniors, Sari Noga and Micaëlla Riché.
But it was Rachel Banham who stole the show.
The junior guard had 16 of her 27 points on just nine shots in the first half, carrying the Gophers to a double-digit lead they’d never relinquish in a 74-57 win over Ohio State. With the victory, the Gophers (19-11, 8-8) got to .500 in Big Ten play and locked up the sixth seed for the Big Ten tournament. They will open against Wisconsin on Thursday in Indianapolis.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve written the script any better than how it went tonight for Sari and Micaëlla,” said coach Pam Borton, alluding to how crucial this victory was to her team’s postseason hopes. “This team has a lot of confidence and has faced a lot of adversity this year, and I think we’re ready to face anything at this point.”
Banham also had seven assists, and Amanda Zahui B. had 14 points and 18 rebounds for her league-leading 14th double-double. Freshman Stabresa McDaniel had one of her strongest games of the season, scoring 11 points and providing some much-needed energy to a Gophers defense that held the Buckeyes to just 34.5 percent shooting.
“We’ve become better … defensively throughout the year at getting stops when we need them,” said Noga, who scored nine points. “I think people are stepping up and playing their roles a lot better, too. So I think that really showed today.”
By winning six of their last eight games, the Gophers finished with their best Big Ten record since the 2008-09 season, the last time they made the NCAA tournament.
They came into the game at No. 37 in the latest RPI report and with the 22nd-most difficult schedule in the country, numbers clearly in their favor.
Some other measurements, though, like the fact that Minnesota has only eight healthy players and had shot just 33.9 percent over its previous three games — games in which the Gophers went 1-2 — didn’t exactly preclude a victory.
But that’s what star players are for.
The Gophers had missed their first six shots Sunday when Banham stepped back behind the arc and drained a three-point shot with Ohio State’s Cait Craft playing tight defense. Banham held her follow-through for an extra moment, as if to let the Buckeyes know what to get used to.
She hit the next two triples she took, and the Gophers were off and running.
Banham finished the first half 4-for-9 from the field, 3-for-6 from long distance. The rest of the team was 6-for-22, but the Gophers led 35-21.
In a chippy, foul-filled second half, Ohio State (15-17, 5-11) never cut the Gophers lead to less than 10, despite 16 points from Raven Ferguson.
The Gophers now prepare for Wisconsin, a team they have beaten twice this season by an average of 12 points.
“I’m excited. I think we all feel really good,” Banham said. “I know that we’re ready, and that I’m ready, and we’re all really excited.”