When Rachel Banham is honored before Minnesota’s women’s basketball home game against No. 5 Ohio State on Wednesday, it’s a foregone conclusion she will receive a standing ovation.
Banham is the Big Ten’s career leading scorer. Twice this season she has scored more than 50 points in a game. Her list of achievements goes on.
A fifth-year senior, Banham has graduated with a degree in the sociology of law, crime and deviance. She has grabbed national headlines and earned shout-outs from Kobe Bryant.
So what hasn’t she done? Play in the NCAA tournament.
That’s why Wednesday is about more than senior night. The Gophers enter with an overall record of 18-9, tied for fourth (10-6) in the Big Ten standings but No. 80 in the RPI rankings. They are on the outer edge of the NCAA tournament bubble. With the Buckeyes on Wednesday and No. 6 Maryland on Sunday on the road, there is much at stake.
“I love it,” Banham said. “There’s a little bit of pressure, but I think you can turn that into something.”
Guards Mikayla Bailey and Shayne Mullaney join Banham as seniors likely playing their final game in Williams Arena. On Tuesday, Mullaney talked of how quickly the past four years have gone. Bailey mentioned an extra edge coming off a close road loss to Michigan State on Sunday. Both made clear there has been a different atmosphere in practice this week as the Gophers balance the emotions of college farewells with the magnitude of this week’s games.
“Everybody has a lot more energy, and there’s a sense of urgency around our team that we need to get these wins,” Mullaney said.
Coach Marlene Stollings said some predictable things Tuesday — one game at a time, stay focused — but even she acknowledged there will be something in the air Wednesday.
“The important thing on senior night is just to use all of that to your advantage and let it help carry you throughout the game,” Stollings said. “Let it help you in those moments where you might be a little bit winded or you might need to get a defensive stop.”
Mullaney said the Gophers are playing for Banham, in a way, trying to reward her play. Banham missed last season’s NCAA tournament loss vs. DePaul because of a torn ACL. Banham is trying to play for her teammates, too, saying improved defense starts with her.
The Gophers aren’t in the most comfortable position, but if you’re going to be bubble long shot, it doesn’t hurt to have Banham.
“We have two games ahead against really great teams,” she said. “If we can get one of these games, it’s going to be really big for us. And then we have the Big Ten tournament, of course, where we could go in there and we could win that thing [for an automatic NCAA bid].
“You never know what’s going to happen.”