Rachel Blount writes about a wide variety of sports subjects, including Minnesota's women's basketball team. She also covers Olympic sports, Minnesota sports and social issues that intersect with the games we watch and play. She has been at the Star Tribune for 20 years, reporting on everything from hockey to horse racing to seven Olympic Games. An Iowa native, she holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Missouri and is married to fellow sportswriter Pat Borzi.

Gophers postgame: Lost opportunity

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 20, 2015 - 11:55 PM

By the time this blog is posted, the Gophers are likely to already be back home in Minneapolis, salving their hurt over an early departure from the NCAA tournament. They packed up their gear at Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion shortly after Friday's 79-72 loss to DePaul and headed for the airport a couple of days earlier than they hoped, after looking for a moment like they might get another first-round victory at Notre Dame.

The Gophers led the Blue Demons 49-34 with 15:23 left. Then the roof caved in, largely because the DePaul press wore down five starters who played most of the minutes all season. That 15-point lead never felt secure against DePaul's defense, which hounded the Gophers for all 40 minutes--just as coach Marlene Stollings warned it would. Amanda Zahui B. and Shae Kelley each had seven turnovers, Shayne Mullaney had five and Carlie Wagner had four. And that was the story, as DePaul scored 25 points off 28 Gophers turnovers.

Stollings gave those heavily used starters four days off after the Gophers were bounced from the BIg Ten tournament on March 6. They showed good energy early Friday, playing much better defense than they had in recent games. But other than Mikayla Bailey, who got into early foul trouble and saw a relatively light 28 minutes, every starter again logged at least 37 minutes. DePaul coach Doug Bruno said at halftime, he knew the Gophers were cooked.

"As crazy as this sounds, I thought we were in a good place,'' Bruno said of his team, which made only two of 20 three-pointers and shot 31 percent in the first half. "I thought that Minnesota was exhausted. We were (behind by) 11 points and we had given up at least 10 or 11 free throws, which was part of the game plan not to do.

"I just said that we needed to fix the little things that we can fix, body language, quit yelling at the referees, just trying to clean up all those little things that we have been working on since day one of the season. I really did tell them that we were going to win the game, and then, we come out in the second half, and we are flat as can be.

"Finally, though, the pressure kicked in. The offensive execution in the second half was excellent. We were sharing the basketball and knocking some threes down, and getting the ball into the middle of the defense and slicing and dicing a bit, doing a good job defending in the half court and trying to reduce the locations from where they could pass the ball. There's no magic to what you do in March. You just have to do what you've been doing all year, but you have to do it really, really well.''

Once DePaul got going in the second half, the Gophers were clearly rattled and never regained their poise.

Bruno said his team's defense succeeded not because of its 14 steals, but because it got the Gophers to play at the pace the Blue Demons wanted. Guard Chanise Jenkins said they wanted to get Zahui B. in particular to run faster so they could wear her down. "We were just relentless on our end,'' Jenkins said.

Stollings acknowledged that the lack of depth, which the Gophers dealt with all season, hurt them Friday. "Credit to (DePaul) for how they play and how committed they are for the entire game,'' she said. "The impressive part of their team is they do not show any lack of fight when things are not going their way. In a 40-minute game in which you do not have a lot of depth, that has a tendency to wear on you from time to time.

"There were some times in the second half where we did not play with enough energy. It is tiring to go against that press the entire time without much depth. ... They have a different style than us, and it was kind of a battle of wills to see what style would dominate. We ended up playing more to their style.''

Despite the disappointing end, the Gophers and Stollings remained very proud Friday of everything the team accomplished as it adjusted to a new coach, a new style of play, new expectations and the loss of superstar Rachel Banham. We'll have a season wrapup in Sunday's paper.
 

Gophers NCAA pregame: Here we go

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 20, 2015 - 3:42 PM

DePaul coach Doug Bruno is used to playing at Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion, where his ninth-seeded Blue Demons open the NCAA tournament against the Gophers at 4 p.m. Central time today. With 45 minutes until tipoff, the Irish's arena already is beginning to fill up.

Bruno doesn't expect the Blue Demons to have an advantage by playing in an arena they have seen before. He is thrilled, though, to have the tournament's first- and second-round games back at campus sites. The Irish have done a tremendous job of promoting the women's game--it helps, of course, to have a team that's been to the Final Four in each of the past four years--and the place promises to be vibrant for tonight's second game between Notre Dame and Montana.

The Irish have sold out four games this season at Purcell Pavilion, which seats 9,149. They average 8,835 per game, sixth in the nation. Bruno is hoping some of that atmosphere spills over to Friday's first game.

"This is back to the future,'' said Bruno, in his 29th season as DePaul's coach. "We as coaches made a decision that we need to go back to the top 16 teams hosting (the first and second rounds). It's what's best for women's basketball right now.

"Notre Dame has done one of the best jobs in the nation of marketing women's basketball and filling this arena up. This is why we said, 'Let (the top four seeds) have home court.' That's what we need as a sport. I'm thrilled for what Notre Dame has done to make this a great environment for women's basketball.''

So, what of the matchup? As we wrote Thursday, the Gophers hold a significant size advantage with Amanda Zahui B. and Shae Kelley. But they have to hold on to the basketball against DePaul's furious press, and they have to put the brakes on the Blue Demons' sharpshooters.

Bruno called Zahui "the best big kid in America'' and noted that she is not "a lone ranger.'' "This is a good team,'' he said of the Gophers. "The perimeter players are really good players. This is a very difficult and tough matchup, and we're excited to be competing against a team as good as Minnesota.

"You can't just sit here and say 'Oh, we've been to 13 (NCAA tournament appearances) in a row, so we have some sort of advantage.' This is a good basketball team we are playing.''

Though this will be the NCAA tournament debut for Gophers coach Marlene Stollings, she noted that assistants Nikita Lowry Dawkins and Fred Chmiel have been to multiple NCAA tournaments. "They know what this is all about,'' Stollings said.

Stollings called Bruno "a legend in our game'' and knows the Gophers will be facing an extremely well-prepared and well-coached team. "They shoot the three ball extremely well, and they get up and defend--and they do it for 40 minutes,'' she said of the Blue Demons. Those are things we really focused on a lot in practice the last couple of days.''

Check startribune.com for a game story shortly after the final buzzer, and come back for full coverage later in the evening. Enjoy the game! 

Gophers prepare for DePaul

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 19, 2015 - 11:15 PM

After traveling to South Bend, Ind., on Tuesday, the Gophers had to wait a day to get a look at the site of Friday's NCAA tournament opener against DePaul. They practiced at Bethel College in nearby Mishawaka on Wednesday afternoon, getting ready to face the quick, hot-shooting guards that make the Blue Demons go, then made their first appearance on the Notre Dame campus Thursday morning.

The Gophers kicked off a day of press conferences in the Monogram Room at Notre Dame's Joyce Center before a serious, 90-minute practice on the Purcell Pavilion floor. Coach Marlene Stollings said she was trying to find the proper balance between allowing players to enjoy the moment and making sure they are sharp for Friday's 4 p.m. game. "We're not just happy to be here,'' she said. "We intend to make some noise in this tournament.''

Stollings gave the Gophers four days off after they were bounced from the Big Ten tournament on March 6, allowing her heavily used starters to get some recovery time. Before the NCAA field was announced Monday, they "cleaned some things up,'' she said, tightening the screws on a defense that faltered too frequently as the team lost three of its past four games. The Gophers also installed some fresh twists on both offense and defense.

The past three days were devoted to learning about the Blue Demons, a very interesting opponent. DePaul is coached by Doug Bruno, an evangelist of the women's game who is in his 29th season of coaching at his alma mater. The Blue Demons are hot, with 13 victories in their past 14 games, and they are experienced, with 13 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.

They start four guards who employ a wicked pressing defense while shooting lights-out from long range. DePaul set a school record with 346 three-pointers this season and is second in Division I with 10.5 per game. They also are second in scoring offense (86.8 points per game), steals (12.4 per game) and turnover margin (+10.79). They have made 10 or more three-pointers in 19 games this season, despite losing one of their best shooters--senior Megan Rogowski--to an ACL tear on Jan. 2.

Those four starting guards, including former Richfield star Jessica January, are all 5-8 or shorter. Junior forward Megan Podkowa, at 6-2, gives up three inches to Gophers center Amanda Zahui B. Stollings said the Gophers have to exploit the height advantage they have with Zahui and 6-1 forward Shae Kelley while handling that press and challenging the Blue Demons' shooters.

"We'll be looking to get the ball to (Zahui and Kelley) as much as possible,'' she said. "Taking care of the ball with their extreme pressure, and handling it throughout the game, will be important. Something they're very good at is they're relentless, so you can't have lapses where you relax. Being poised is going to be very important for us.

"Defensively, we can't let them have easy looks from the three-point line. They're deadly. They take 30 threes a game, and they make 10. That’s at a higher rate than anybody we've faced all year.''

Guard Shayne Mullaney noted that all of the Blue Demons--even Podkowa--can hit from three-point range. "We have to focus on keeping the hand up and not letting any of them get open looks,'' Mullaney said. And on offense, Mullaney added, the Gophers must be patient and concentrate on making good passes.

Some other tidbits from Thursday's activities:

--Stollings said many alumni have contacted the Gophers to wish them well, and some stopped by practice at Williams Arena before the team left for South Bend. Her parents will be coming to Friday's game, driving over from their home in Ohio. "My mom didn't want to miss it,'' said Stollings, who like her players is a first-timer to the NCAA tournament experience.

--As a newbie, Stollings is the odd coach out in this group of four. Bruno has coached DePaul for 29 years, with 586 victories. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw is in her 28th season with the Irish and has won 694 games. Montana coach Robin Selvig has led the Lady Griz for 37 years, with 845 victories. It's a remarkable bunch.

--January said she is looking forward to playing her hometown university. She hasn't played with or against any of the Gophers, but she attended camps at the U where some players were providing demonstrations. And when she played AAU ball with the Minnesota Stars, Gophers freshman Carlie Wagner was part of a younger team with that organization.

"We're all familiar faces,'' she said. "It will be fun.''

January is averaging 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. She said she is much more comfortable this season after adjusting to the college game as a freshman last year.

"She's a good all-around player and defender,'' teammate Brittany Hrynko said. "When I'm not scoring and Chanise (Jenkins) is not scoring, she'll step up. If we need a stop, Jess will make it. She brings a lot to our team.''

Check back tomorrow for a pregame blog, plus game coverage in the Star Tribune and on startribune.com.

Another award for Zahui B.: First-team All-America from espnW

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 13, 2015 - 5:03 PM

Amanda Zahui B. ought to ask another Swedish icon, IKEA, to send her a bookcase. Better make it an extra-large one. The Gophers sophomore center received another big honor Friday when espnW named her a first-team all-American, putting Zahui in some extraordinary company while adding more plaques and trophies to a growing collection.

Joining her on espnW's first team were Baylor sophomore forward Nina Davis, Notre Dame junior guard Jewell Loyd, South Carolina junior guard Tiffany Mitchell and UConn junior forward Breanna Stewart. Within the past couple of weeks, Zahui has been named the Big Ten player of the year by the media; was the only unanimous selection to the all-Big Ten first team; made the Big Ten all-defensive team; was named to the all-Big Ten Tournament team; became one of 15 players on the ballot for the Wooden Award; and was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy.

Zahui is the first Gopher to become a first-team all-American since Janel McCarville in 2005. Only four other Gophers have been first-team all-Americans: Lindsay Whalen (2003, 2004), McCarville (2004, 2005), Laura Coenen (1985) and Carol Ann Shudlick (1994).

espnW's Graham Hays, who was among the group of espnW staffers who selected the teams, had this to say about Zahui. "There were nights when Minnesota's Big Ten opponents simply couldn't deal with Zahui B., like she was a middle schooler playing with elementary school students at recess. Zahui B. is big and quick in the post, averaging 18.8 points,12.6 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game, but the relentlessness with which she attacks the basket, with the ball or in pursuit of it, sets her apart.''

The website chose Loyd as its player of the year, Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell as freshman of the year and Florida State's Sue Semrau as coach of the year. The award recipients were selected by espnW women's basketball experts Mechelle Voepel, Charlie Creme, Michelle Smith and Hays.

Here is a link to espnW's slideshow on the all-America team: http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/slideshow/12473370/1/2015-women-college-basketball-espnw-all-america-teams

Second-team selections were Kelsey Mitchell, UConn junior guard Moriah Jefferson, Iowa senior guard Samantha Logic, UConn senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Duke senior center Elizabeth Williams.

The Gophers returned to the practice floor Thursday to tune up for an expected berth in the NCAA tournament. Coach Marlene Stollings gave them a few days off after the Big Ten tournament to rest and let some minor injuries heal. The tournament begins next Friday with first-round games at campus sites.

The Gophers haven't played since last Friday's loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. Now that they're back in the gym, Stollings said, they will work to maintain their conditioning and use the time before the NCAA tournament to add a couple of twists to their repertoire.

"We want to make sure we keep our legs under us,'' Stollings said. "We'll do a lot of scrimmaging over the next two or three practices and make sure we're game-ready. We'll also look at putting in some new plays, some tweaks defensively, to make sure we have some new stuff going into the tournament. We like to do that when we have time like this.''

The coach and the players all are excited about hosting a party at Williams Arena to watch Monday's NCAA tournament selection show. The event is open to the public and includes free pizza, chips, ice cream and soda, as well as free T-shirts. The center scoreboard will be lowered and used as a giant-screen TV to watch the 6 p.m. show; the team will be seated on the court, and fans can sit in section 106 behind the scorers' table. There will be a trivia contest with prizes, and Stollings will do her weekly radio show from the court after the selection show at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

We'll have full coverage of Selection Monday in the Star Tribune and at startribune.com, including a Monday feature on fifth-year senior Shae Kelley and how she decided to transfer to Minnesota to play her final college season.

Gophers postgame: More of the same

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 7, 2015 - 2:30 AM

The last time Ohio State played the Gophers, Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff wasn't happy with the way his team rebounded and defended. The Gophers won 76-72 in January, in large part because they outrebounded Ohio State 60-40 and outscored the Buckeyes in the paint.

McGuff's team has come a long ways since then. Friday, they knocked off the Gophers 83-71 in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals in a game in which defense loomed large on both sides. Ohio State learned from that game in January and came in with a plan to get physical against Zahui and Shae Kelley inside. The Gophers, on the other hand, continued a recent pattern of intermittent attention to defense, and it cost them.

That isn't the only reason they're going home early. They committed 22 turnovers, which the Buckeyes converted into 21 points. They went nearly six minutes without a basket in the first half. Ohio State's Alexa Hart and Shayla Cooper did an excellent job of limiting offensive rebounds and second-chance points.

Zahui still rolled up some big numbers. She finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 11 blocked shots; the 11 blocks were a single-game record for the Big Ten tournament, and her 14 blocks in two games are a tournament record as well. She also broke her own Big Ten single-season rebounding record and now has 404 rebounds this season. Her triple-double was the second in Big Ten tournament history; the first was achieved by former Gopher Janel McCarville in 2004.

But as Cooper said afterward, Zahui got the triple-double, but Ohio State got the win. The Buckeyes have won five in a row by developing into a well-rounded team, with Big Ten player of the year Kelsey Mitchell only one facet to be feared.

"We got them a little more off the block and in different positions, which made it harder for them to get offensive rebounds,'' McGuff said. "We contained the ball a little bit better, which means our post players didn't have to help and get out of position to where they couldn't block them out on shots.

"Amanda Zahui B. and Shae Kelley are two great post players, and our kids had to work really hard. We knew we weren't going to limit them, but we wanted them to work for everything they got, and I think we did do that.''

Cooper said that McGuff emphasized rebounding and physical contact. While they were jostling with Zahui early in the game, the Gophers began trying to force the ball to her, which contributed to their turnover problems. Zahui, who attempted five shots in the first half and made two, put the responsibility on herself.

"I just have to catch the balls and work harder to get to a better position,'' she said. "We had some great looks. It's not so much what Ohio State did. It's more ourselves.''

McGuff said he also gave guards Cait Craft and Asia Doss the task of pressuring the Gophers to try and prevent them from gaining any rhythm on offense. It worked particularly well in the final 10 minutes of the first half. After Carlie Wagner's three-pointer gave the Gophers a 15-14 lead, the Gophers committed five turnovers and missed five shots, including three layups.

"You're going to make mistakes throughout a game,'' said Kelley, who had 23 points and 13 rebounds, with most coming in the second half. "You're going to have some slumps. The other team is going to go on runs, and you're going to turn the ball over.

"But I think our energy just defensively was the main thing. We just had to pick that up. We did, but we have to pick it up earlier. We're not so much worried about the turnovers. Those are going to happen in any game. It's just that energy on defense to force them to turn the ball over also.''

Gophers coach Marlene Stollings also was most concerned about the defense. "We have to defend better the entire game,'' she said. "We're doing a good job in spurts. But consistently, for a 40-minute period, we've not been solid.

"The scoring piece is going to come and go some. And if we're 70 (points) and up this time of year, we're OK with that offensively. But defensively, we cannot be giving up 80-plus points in March and really expect to have great success.''

With the Gophers now at 23 victories, Stollings said, she is feeling secure about their likelihood of getting an invitation to the NCAA tournament. But she acknowledged the Gophers, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2009, are still green when it comes to poise and savvy this time of year.

"For our young ladies, I think that we're still working through what it means to play on this stage and to handle the increased intensity and physicality that comes with this time of year,'' she said.

A few other notes:

--Carlie Wagner bounced back from a poor performance in Thursday's victory over Purdue, scoring 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting and making four of eight 3-pointers. Shayne Mullaney went the other direction. Mullaney, who had a career-high 19 points against the Boilermakers, was one-for-nine Friday and had six turnovers.

Stollings has been saying that Wagner needs to elevate her game to meet the demands of playing in March, and she reiterated that Friday. "How she gets her shot off, as well as bringing something else to the table in her defensive play and rebounding, is something we're going to try to get her to step up here before the NCAA tournament,'' she said.

--The Gophers' bench was outscored 19-2 by Ohio State's reserves. Stabresa McDaniel, Kayla Hirt and Tory Jacobs played a combined 18 minutes; McDaniel made one of four shots.

--The Gophers' 12 blocked shots Friday was a Big Ten tournament single-game record. Zahui has 22 blocks in four career games in the conference tournament, second-most in its history.

--Mitchell, who led all scorers with 29 points, surpassed the 20-point mark for the 22nd time this season and passed Katie Smith to take second place on Ohio State's single-season scoring list. Mitchell has 765 points this season and is only nine points away from Jantel Lavender's program record of 774.

Gophers pregame: Battle of the POYs

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 6, 2015 - 6:09 PM

When asked if she was eager to play against Kelsey Mitchell in Friday's Big Ten quarterfinals, Amanda Zahui B. didn't take the bait. "I'm motivated to go against any team right now,'' the Gophers center said Thursday, after her team's second-round victory over Purdue. "We can't focus on awards right now. We've got too much at stake. Whoever is out there, we're going to bring it.''

Zahui's outstanding season won her the title of Big Ten player of the year, as chosen by the media. Mitchell, the Buckeyes' precocious point guard, was named conference player of the year by coaches. The presence of those dominating yet very different players should make for an intriguing game tonight at Sears Centre, as the No. 6-seeded Gophers take on the No. 3-seeded Buckeyes in the day's last quarterfinal.

The 5-8 Mitchell has been lights-out for Ohio State since she first put on the uniform. In her college debut, against Virginia, she scored 26 points, and she has scored 20 or more in 21 of her 30 games this season. Her current average of 24.5 points per game is second in the country to Wagner's Jasmine Nwajei (24.8), giving her a chance to make history. No freshman ever has led the country in scoring.

Mitchell's 110 three-pointers are the most in NCAA Division I and the highest single-season total in Ohio State history. With 736 points, she is within reach of Jantel Lavender's school record of 774 set in 2010-11. She is on the watch lists for several major awards, and her 24.5 points/4.1 assists per game account for 42.3 percent of the Buckeyes' offense.

We could go on, but you get the point. The Gophers--who have been defensively challenged in several games lately--can't afford any lapses against Ohio State. In their 76-72 victory over the Buckeyes in Columbus on Jan. 15, Mitchell made a season-high nine three-pointers (on 20 attempts) and finished with 36 points and seven assists before fouling out late. Her backcourt mate, Ameryst Alston, also is a superb talent, averaging 20.2 points for the No. 7 offense in the country (80.5 points per game).

The Gophers counter with Zahui, and they have a decided advantage inside. The Buckeyes lack both size and experience in the post. Freshman center Alexa Hart is 6-3 and is relatively slight; the Columbus Dispatch reported she is up to 153 pounds after starting the season at 143. Hart was just 3-of-13 against the Gophers, with seven rebounds. (It should be noted that Zahui didn't have a great game against the Buckeyes; she made five of 15 shots and got eight rebounds in only 23 minutes before fouling out.) Hart does have 110 blocks and has been scoring more lately, hitting double figures in six of the past eight games.

Ohio State is playing very well right now. It enters tonight's game with four consecutive victories, including 18-point pummelings of two teams who recently handled the Gophers, Iowa and Nebraska.

Kayla Hirt said after Thursday's victory that the Gophers "focus better when we're under pressure.'' To beat the Buckeyes, they're going to have to lock it in for 40 minutes.

In earlier games today, Maryland looked great in a 70-60 win over Michigan State, and Minneapolis/Hopkins High product Nia Coffey was instrumental to Northwestern's second-half rally that pushed it past Rutgers 62-57. The Wildcats trailed by 15 points with four minutes left in the first half and were down 10 at halftime. They started the second half with a 29-9 run to win a Big Ten tournament game for the first time since 2011.

The 'Cats are only two victories away from tying the school record of 25. Coffey finished with 12 points on four-of-seven shooting, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals for a Northwestern offense that had five players score in double figures.

We'll have full coverage on startribune.com after the game.

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