INDIANAPOLIS – All season, Gophers guard Rachel Banham talked about how much an NCAA tournament bid would mean.
All year, the other Minnesota players talked of wanting to make the tournament field for their senior leader. Throughout the Gophers’ schedule, Banham talked of how much she believed in those teammates, of how deeply she and the Gophers believed they could reach their goal.
After the Gophers’ 84-74 loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament Thursday, Banham’s comments were much shorter.
“I’m not happy,” she said.
The fifth-seeded Gophers lost to No. 12 seed Northwestern mostly because of what happened on the boards. The Wildcats finished with a 54-42 rebounding advantage, including a 34-19 edge in the second half. The Wildcats had a 13-7 edge in offensive rebounds in the final half, paving the way for the first 5-12 seeding upset in Big Ten women’s tournament history.
“Really, [rebounding] was the piece,” Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said. “It was very deflating because here we are working really hard and getting the stops and forcing the shots that we wanted. [The rebounds] were coming off. A lot of them were coming off long. And we didn’t chase them down.”
With 2 minutes, 25 seconds left, the Gophers trailed 72-68 and were clinging to hopes of making a run.
Northwestern missed, then Northwestern’s Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah rebounded.
Northwestern missed again, and Kunaiyi-Akpanah rebounded again.
Northwestern missed, Minnesota rebounded … then Northwestern’s Ashley Dearly got a steal.
That 65-second sequence was basically how the afternoon ended for the Gophers, who resorted to fouling in the final minute in a futile attempt to rally.
Minnesota seemed doomed early after Banham — who scored an NCAA-record-tying 60 points against Northwestern in February’s double overtime victory — missed four of her first five shots. She finished with a game-high 26 points and now has 3,008 for her career — good for 10th in NCAA history — but shot only 28 percent (7-for-25).
“I think it was just one of those games where [my shot] wasn’t falling, so I was just trying to be aggressive and take inside shots,” Banham said.
Sophomore guard Carlie Wagner helped the Gophers (19-11) hang around with 18 points and sophomore center Jessie Edwards had 12, but not a single Gopher recorded double-digits rebounds, compared to three players for Northwestern (17-15).
Hopkins alum Nia Coffey led the Wildcats with 25 points, and Northwestern also benefited from nine three-pointers, including an early hot-shooting stretch against the Gophers’ 2-3 zone. After Minnesota altered its defense and started closing out on shooters, Northwestern’s three-point percentage came back to Earth. But the Gophers already had too much to overcome.
“We’ve struggled [shooting this year],” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown. “So I don’t know [what was different]. Maybe the Ides of March, maybe the winds blowing in Indy, something.”
Minnesota entered the Big Ten tournament among the last four teams out of the NCAA bracket in ESPN’s Charlie Creme’s projections. The prevailing thought was the Gophers needed one victory, if not two, in the Big Ten tourney to seal an NCAA bid.
Banham, who has never played an NCAA tournament game, walked off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with tears starting to swell in her eyes, but she held her head high and showed little emotion as she headed to the locker room.
In similar fashion, Stollings didn’t concede hopes for a tournament bid, but she sure sounded prepared for the WNIT.
“We know that we have postseason in our future absolutely,” Stollings said. “We will sit back and wait and see what that entails, but we know we’re going to be playing some postseason basketball, for sure.”