To nobody’s surprise, the Gophers rolled over winless Incarnate Word in a Wednesday matinee at Williams Arena.
The crowd of 7,835 — augmented by thousands of elementary school students for the annual Field Trip Day — saw all 11 healthy Gophers play in a 75-39 route that pushed the 14th-ranked Gophers to 8-0. With three nonconference games left — including what promises to be a challenge at Boston College on Sunday — the Gophers are in a good position to head into Big Ten play with confidence.
And that’s mainly because of the defense.
In Lindsay Whalen’s first year as coach, the Gophers have transformed themselves into a defensive team featuring a tight player-to-player scheme. In recent seasons, the Gophers played a lot of zone, wanting to outscore opponents rather than shut them down.
This season? The Gophers entered Wednesday’s game ranked seventh among Division I teams in points allowed per game (50.4), seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions (93.3) and 24th in opponent field-goal percentage (33.8). And those figures will improve after Incarnate Word scored 39 points on 22.7 percent shooting.
Compare that to last season, when the Gophers ranked 333rd (out of 349 teams) in points allowed (74.8), 263rd in points per 100 possessions (97.2) and 285th in opponent field-goal percentage (42.4).
“The defense has been there,” Whalen said. “We focused a lot on defense throughout the summer and fall. So it’s not shocking that maybe a little of our offense is trying to catch up with our defense. But we feel [defense] can be a cornerstone of our team and our program going forward.”
The offense has been up and down. But Wednesday the Gophers started the game with a 12-0 run that featured center Annalese Lamke with seven early points. Forcing the Cardinals (0-9) to double down low opened up the perimeter, resulting in Destiny Pitts breaking out a bit, hitting five of nine three-pointers for a game-high 15 points. Lamke finished with 13. Freshman guard Mercedes Staples added 11 points and four assists.
Angelica Wiggins — the sister of Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins — led Incarnate Word with 13 points.
Up 32-11 at halftime, the Gophers scored 32 third-quarter points on 10-for-14 shooting before Whalen played mostly reserves in the fourth.
It’s hard to tell exactly where the Gophers are at this point, considering the relative strength of the schedule. The Gophers got a big win over then-No. 12 Syracuse last week, and quality victories over Xavier and San Diego, too.
But the one constant has been the defense. And Lamke isn’t surprised.
“We really saw the deficits in our defense from last year,” she said. “I think we were really excited to get the opportunity to focus a lot on defense.”
Whalen said she’s most pleased by the defense, and how well the team has followed game plans. She also likes the way her team has responded to points of emphasis coming out of games. For example, Whalen wasn’t pleased with her team’s assist total (eight) and free-throw shooting (20-for-39) in Sunday’s victory over Air Force. Wednesday the Gophers had 22 assists on 29 field goals and were 9-for-9 from the line.
“That’s the sign of a good team and smart players,” Whalen said, “that we addressed something, worked on it in practice and saw it in a game.”
The Gophers game Sunday at Boston College (7-1) will be perhaps the best test before the conference opener. It will be on the road against an ACC team off to a strong start. After that the Gophers host Coppin State (0-6) and Rhode Island (5-2) before the Big Ten opener vs. Wisconsin (7-2) on Dec. 28, also at home.