After seeing what Rachel Banham achieved last season, Shayne Mullaney understood she could aim for the stars during her freshman season with the Gophers. Banham, her former AAU teammate, started all 36 games and became the Big Ten freshman of the year while leading the Gophers in scoring.
Banham's success inspired Mullaney to expand her own ambitions. Still, she wasn't expecting to become a starter after eight games. As the Gophers begin the Big Ten season at Michigan State on Thursday, Mullaney has claimed a place in the starting lineup alongside her friend and mentor, sharing point guard duties in an arrangement that has surprised her as much as it has delighted her teammates and coaches.
Mullaney made her first start Nov. 29 when Mikayla Bailey -- a freshman who had started the first seven games -- was sidelined because of mononucleosis. In seven games since then, Mullaney has averaged 9.9 points, including a career-high 18 against Robert Morris on Dec. 9.
Mullaney's confident and steady play also has energized Banham, who is averaging a team-high 21.4 points per game. Mullaney's ability to bring the ball up the floor and run the offense has taken pressure off the Gophers' sophomore star and given Banham opportunities to score from the wing.
"It made me so excited to see how well Rachel did as a freshman,'' said Mullaney, who scored a school-record 1,462 points in her high school career at Eden Prairie. "That made me dream big and want something like that for myself.
"You want to reach high for goals, but honestly, I didn't think I'd be starting as a freshman. It's a dream come true, and it's kind of surreal. It makes everything a lot more fun.''
Gophers coach Pam Borton said she never knows what her freshmen can handle until she sees how they deal with the responsibility given to them and how they adapt to the demands of college basketball. She's been impressed by Mullaney's unflappable nature and willingness to take on whatever is asked of her.
"We've asked Shayne to do more than we've asked any freshman to do,'' Borton said. "We're tough on her, and we have a lot of expectations for her. And she's doing it all very well. Very few times do you see signs of a freshman out there on the floor.''
From the start of the season, Borton expected Mullaney to play plenty of minutes and give Banham relief at point guard. Banham typically begins games at that position, then she and Mullaney will trade off as situations warrant. Mullaney is averaging 27.4 minutes per game, third most on the team, and her 46 assists are second to Banham's 64.
After watching Banham last year, Mullaney said, she worked tirelessly over the summer to prepare for an impressive debut herself. She has strived to limit her turnovers and improve her defense; her next aim is to increase her scoring (7.1 ppg).
Banham has lent her plenty of advice. Last year, she said, she struggled in her first games against the bigger, stronger and faster opponents in the Big Ten. Mullaney will face the same tough adjustment, but Banham said her play thus far has prepared her well.
"She's playing great,'' Banham said. "You can see her confidence grow every game.''
Borton also said Wednesday that she likely will redshirt Amanda Zahui B., who arrived on campus Dec. 25 and began practicing two days later. Zahui B., a 6-5 freshman center from Sweden, could not start the season with the team because she did not receive clearance from the NCAA Eligibility Center in time. Borton said she would prefer to redshirt Zahui B. to give her time to adjust.