The Gophers were supposed to have one of the best players in America, a Player of the Year candidate. She was supposed to lift the team into the national spotlight and carry them into the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons. She was supposed to dominate games, score at will at times, and overwhelm opponents with a terrific all-around game. A Gophers superstar was finally supposed to bring big victories back to Williams Arena.
And, this is all happening.
It’s just not the player everyone thought it would be doing it.
Amanda Zahui B. might be the best center in women’s college basketball. She’s playing like a first-team All-America.
“We leave that [debate] to the folks who analyze that, but we certainly think she should be in contention and in those discussions,” Gophers first-year coach Marlene Stollings said.
Five weeks ago, Zahui was vying for best supporting actress honors. A couple of weeks before that, the 6-5 sophomore from Stockholm was struggling with foul trouble and posting numbers that were half of her season averages. This all changed when Rachel Banham, the senior guard who was originally going to fulfill the starring role of a promising season, went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Zahui snapped her long fingers to demonstrate how long it took for her to assume the lead role.
“I feel like right when she went down, when they helped her off the court, it just kind of clicked in my head,” Zahui said last week.
She clearly remembers the scene on Dec. 10 in Grand Forks, N.D.: Banham hit the floor after a layup, ACL torn, and her screams told Zahui their leader wouldn’t play another game this season.
“Right then, I told Kayla [Hirt] and Shae [Kelley] we all have to step up and we can’t let this bring us down,” Zahui said. “I can’t let the team down.”
Since that night, Zahui is on a tear — a recent streak of nine double-doubles included six 20-plus-point games — encouraged all along by Banham. She hears Banham from the bench, little comments such as, “You’ve got this” and “You’re not tired.” Zahui will look to the sideline and yell back, “I got you, Coach.”
“I listen to Rachel when she’s on the sideline, in practice or even during the games,” Zahui said. “Then I know what to do and try to be a leader by my actions. … I feel like people look up to me.
“I can’t feel like I’m the youngest anymore. I feel like I’ve grown in that role and become more mature.”
Zahui, while not abandoning her polished, versatile game, has become a punishing post player, relying on the strength and stamina she developed before the season to overpower opponents in the Gophers’ 4-1 Big Ten start that has them in second place. A win Sunday at Williams Arena against Indiana would give the 23rd-ranked Gophers a Big Ten-best 16 victories.
‘A special player’
Seven games have passed since the detrimental loss of Banham, a preseason All-America and the preseason pick to win Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Some outsiders considered her injury the virtual end of the Gophers’ season. Instead, Zahui, senior forward Shae Kelley and the rest of the Gophers have climbed into the Top 25 for the first time in nine years.
Zahui earned Big Ten weekly honors four weeks in a row, including back-to-back Player of the Week honors. ESPN named her the National Player of the Week following a stretch of three games in which she had 46 rebounds and 52 points. In the Gophers’ Big Ten opener, Zahui led a 17-point comeback against Nebraska by scoring 20 and grabbing 15 rebounds. Her last-second block was the final stamp of the 72-69 victory, and a message that the Banham-less Gophers were not finished.
Through 17 games, she’s averaging 16.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, and her 66 blocks are tied for second in the nation.
“We’ve moved her into a captain’s role with Rachel going down,” Stollings said, “and we’ve asked her to lead, and lead by example.”
Zahui’s All-America candidacy is far from a complete surprise, however. Her freshman season included an All-America honorable mention, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award and an all-Big Ten honor. She averaged a double-double and set the Gophers’ single-season blocks record.
“She’s big. She’s strong. She’s physical,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said after her 12th-ranked Terrapins needed a season-high seven three-pointers to hold off Minnesota. “I was really, really impressed with her, and she was a difficult presence for us inside.
“She did a great job burning us at times being really active. She’s a special player.”
Maryland center Brionna Jones was introduced to Zahui’s long arms in the opening minute when she was stuffed under the basket. Zahui then sprinted up the court and posted up for an easy layup. For a 6-5 power player, she’s quick and an above-average ballhandler who can drive to the basket. Good hands allow her to catch and shoot from outside, and she can keep up with Stollings’ fast-paced style.
“I knew she was going to be a big and tough post player, and she’s really efficient around the basket,” Jones said after Zahui’s 26-point, 14-rebound performance. “I think she’s pretty close to the top [of the nation’s best centers].”
A better athlete
Her jump from solid freshman to outstanding sophomore can be traced to a lack of at least two things: Swedish chocolate and Five Guys cheeseburgers.
Last summer, Zahui wanted a quicker step and better late-game stamina. She trained with the Sweden national team and players 10 years older than her. She saw what it was like to be a mature player, and part of this maturity meant taking better care of her body. She challenged herself, she said, and lost nearly 40 pounds.
She returned to Minnesota with a healthier body and mind-set, eager for Stollings’ rigorous preseason workouts.
“We started off the summer with a lot of running,” Zahui said, “and I know there were a lot of people that said, ‘Amanda won’t make it.’ But clearly I did, because I wouldn’t give up.”
Stollings is using Zahui’s better conditioning to her advantage, playing her big center for 36, 39, 37 and 39 minutes in the Gophers’ first four Big Ten games.
“She just set her mind to it,” teammate and roommate Kayla Hirt said. “She hasn’t needed anyone to tell her to eat healthy. Last year, she was the type that would eat junk food and didn’t care about any of that stuff. Now, she is really disciplined in that area. She’s stuck to her goal.”
The goal for December was to go until Christmas without a “cheat day.” She rewarded herself by splurging on the Swedish chocolate her family sent for the holidays.
Zahui grew up in Sweden playing soccer and tennis, but by 13 she was taller than most boys and learning a new game. She was recruited by former coach Pam Borton to Minnesota, where the bridges spanning the Mississippi reminded Zahui of her home country.
She acclimated her diverse game to the American style quickly, and better discipline this offseason has led to even better basketball.
Strength and conditioning coach Sara Wiley points to improved footwork and a refined ability to establish strong body positions late in games as reasons for her climb.
“Part of getting stronger is learning how to use your body to your advantage, and I think she’s still learning that,” Wiley said. “She’s getting better and better at that all the time. ... As the challenge rises, she’s able to feel like, ‘I need to do this and figure it out.’ ”
The more Zahui figures it out, the more the national spotlight will shine on Williams Arena. Zahui, however, said she would rather people talk about victories than her gaudy statistics.
“I try not to focus on the hype around me,” she said. “I try to stay as humble as possible. That is something my parents taught me.
“I want to be a role model to show kids that even if you start out bad, or [you are] this big, or that small … if you work hard, you can reach your goals.”