EUGENE, Ore. – For the first time in nearly a decade, the Gophers women’s basketball team will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
All it took was for Minnesota’s coaches to light a fire under Kenisha Bell, leading to a performance fitting for March Madness.
A more aggressive Bell scored 24 of her 26 points in the second half to lead No. 10 seed Minnesota to an 89-77 win against No. 7 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay at the University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena.
The 5-9 junior point guard bounced back from a two-point first half to shoot 5-for-8 from the field and 14-for-15 on free throws in the second half.
It helped to secure the U’s first NCAA tournament win since beating Notre Dame in 2009.
“My coaches know how to get me intense and into the game,” the former Bloomington Kennedy star said. “Once they feel like I’m getting a little sloppy, they try to make me mad on purpose. And once I get mad, I just started going off.”
The Gophers (24-8), who play No. 2 seed Oregon on Sunday, trailed by 13 points early in the second half, but they snatched back the momentum with a 17-4 run beginning late in the third quarter.
Green Bay (29-4) led 42-32 at halftime and opened the second half with a three-pointer, but Carlie Wagner and Bell combined for 18 points in the third quarter to cut it to 62-57.
In the fourth quarter, Destiny Pitts and Gadiva Hubbard nailed back-to-back jumpers to make it a one-point game. After the Phoenix responded, Bell hit four straight free throws to give Minnesota its first lead of the second half at 67-66.
Laken James banked in a three-pointer to give her team a one-point advantage, but that was Green Bay’s last lead. Minnesota used a 7-0 run to go ahead 78-72 on Hubbard’s two free throws at the five-minute mark.
Pitts had 20 points and eight rebounds. Hubbard and Wagner had 16 and 15 points, respectively. Reserve Jessie Edwards also provided a lift with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Allie LeClaire had 17 points to lead Green Bay, which hasn’t won an NCAA tournament opening-round game since 2012. The Phoenix was 3-1 against power conference opponents this season, including wins against Big Ten schools Northwestern and Wisconsin.
The Gophers took control early off 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc to take a 22-17 lead after the first quarter. But Green Bay showed why it led Division I in scoring defense (46.1 points per game) holding Minnesota to 10 points in the second quarter on 4-for-16 shooting.
The Gophers ranked third nationally with 85.2 points per game, trailing only Baylor and Connecticut this year, so it was a great offense that eventually overpowered a great defense in the end.
The Phoenix gave up 57 points in the second half, including 30 points in the fourth quarter. Minnesota’s 89 points were the most by any Green Bay foe since UConn reached that mark in 2014-15.
Stollings, who lost in the NCAA tournament first round to DePaul in 2015, was proud that her team proved it could pull out a game on the defensive end as well. The Gophers ended the game on an 11-0 run and held Green Bay scoreless in the last 3:22.
“It wasn’t pretty in the first half, but I thought we recovered nicely,” Stollings said. “Our defense actually led to our offense there in the second half. Just really, really proud of this group and how hard they fought. Only two players [Wagner and Bryanna Fernstrom] had been on this stage before.”
The Gophers will be an underdog vs. the Ducks, who routed Seattle 88-45.