U women near NCAA at-large basketball berth

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2014 - 6:48 AM

A third win for the Gophers over Wisconsin in their tourney opener is a must or it bursts.

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Rachel Banham, a first-team All-Big Ten guard, has scored 19 points in each of the Gophers’ two wins against the Badgers this season.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores • eflores@startribune.com,

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Sari Noga is, according to Rachel Banham, the obsessed one.

Banham, the Gophers guard, was talking about her senior teammate, the one player on the team who is constantly on the Internet, always looking for updates, an amateur NCAA bracketologist.

“She is always telling me about it,” Banham said. “But I never look at it. I kinda just wait until it’s official.”

After an up-and-down season, after a 6-2 finish produced a .500 mark in Big Ten play, the Gophers enter this week’s conference tournament in Indianapolis on the cusp of the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2009.

The team has a solid RPI of 38. Strength of schedule (20th) is good.

Gophers coach Pam Borton said she is convinced that, if nobody played another game, the Gophers would be a tournament lock.

Problem is, there are a lot of games to be played. Chances are upsets will jumble the tournament selection mix. And so the Gophers believe they absolutely have to win their first-round matchup with 11th-seeded Wisconsin to punch an NCAA ticket, something nobody on the current roster has ever experienced.

“At this point we’re closer than we’ve ever been,” senior Micaëlla Riché said. “We have a good game for the first round of the Big Tens, and that would give us 20 wins.”

Riché remembers watching the selection show two years ago when the Gophers’ NCAA bubble burst. “You watch and wait for our name to get called and it hasn’t been so far,” she said.

Maybe this year.

The Gophers (19-11, 8-8 Big Ten) will play Wisconsin (10-18, 3-13) — a team Minnesota beat twice this year — Thursday. The winner will face No. 3 seed Nebraska in Friday’s quarterfinals, a team the Gophers took to overtime on the road Jan. 16.

The Gophers have improved by leaps and bounds defensively during the last half of the conference season. In-season injuries that taxed Borton’s 10-player roster had the silver lining of forging a close-knit group. “Everybody is playing to their roles, to their strengths, on the court,” Borton said. “We’re playing great defense, we’re rebounding the ball well. Our turnovers are lower. There are a lot of positives going on right now.”

Banham is the Big Ten’s leading scorer, and center Amanda Zahui B. was just named freshman of the year.

On the other hand, Borton is moving forward with eight healthy players; Jackie Johnson is out for the season with a knee injury, and Borton said Tuesday that Shayne Mullaney, who hasn’t played since late January, is not expected back this season because of concussion-related issues.

The Gophers recorded their .500 conference mark without getting a victory against a team that finished in the top five of the league standings. And the team has had its struggles in conference tournament action, losing its first game in five of the last six seasons.

Could this year be different? The Gophers are entering tournament play on a strong run. Tuesday Riché was talking about the fire the team was determined to bring to Indianapolis. For her and fellow senior Noga, this is a final chance to play in the NCAA tournament.

“I want nothing more at this point,” Riché said. “I think I’ve been through a lot, just with my teammates, with myself. I’ve grown a lot over the last four years. It would be perfect to make it to the tournament.”

Banham couldn’t agree more.

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