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: Turning a blowout into a nail-biter

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 6, 2015 - 3:24 AM

In the back corner of the Gophers' locker room late Thursday night, Kayla Hirt sat next to her pal Amanda Zahui B. and polished off the last of a postgame dinner in a styrofoam box. The slogan "Refuse to Lose!'' was still written on the whiteboard at the front of the room, more than half an hour after the Gophers had beaten Purdue 82-78 in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.

Hirt came off the bench to play a key role Thursday, scoring eight points--all in the second half--and filling in very nicely for Zahui when the center got into foul trouble. The game looked like it might be a blowout early, but the Gophers' inconsistency on both offense and defense turned it into a nail-biter. While they weren't at their best, they did prove again that they relish a good fight. And they often come out on top; the Gophers now are 8-2 this season in games decided by four or fewer points.

Zahui fouled out with 37 seconds left. Hirt made four free throws in the final 28 seconds, and with the Gophers clinging to a four-point lead, she grabbed a rebound of a Purdue miss with six seconds left and drew a foul. "She's very capable in those moments, and she likes those moments,'' coach Marlene Stollings said.

The Gophers missed six of their first 13 free throws, but they won because they were able to draw fouls and sharpen up at the line in the second half. Their final 15 points came on free throws.

"I think our team just realizes what we need to do when it comes to the end of games,'' Hirt said. "I feel like our team loses focus a lot of times throughout the game when we get ahead. That’s where the inconsistency comes.

"We focus better when we're under pressure. We realized it was going to come down to free throws, and missing free throws was going to be unacceptable.''

The Gophers now face No. 3 seed Ohio State in the quarterfinals in the last game of Friday's session, at approximately 8:30 p.m. The Gophers beat the Buckeyes 76-72 in Columbus in the teams' only regular-season game.

Other observations:

--Shayne Mullaney scored 19 points, a career high, with 11 of those in the second half. Her three-pointer that restored the Gophers' lead with four minutes left was huge. That was the only three-pointer the Gophers made in the second half on 11 attempts. Mullaney also went six-for-six at the free-throw line in the final 1:16.

--Stollings and forward Shae Kelley both said the Gophers must buckle down on defense. That has been a frequent issue for them; on Thursday, Kelley said they "kind of got relaxed'' early in the second half, allowing Purdue's Whitney Bays and Liza Clemons to beat them inside consistently. In the loss to Iowa, the Gophers weren't able to disrupt the Hawkeyes' perimeter shooting.

"Defensively, I think we have to stay a little bit more consistent and tighten up what we're doing,'' Stollings said. "We play multiple defenses, and I thought we lost some coverages there to start the second half. (Purdue) adjusted a little bit, and we needed to adjust a little bit quicker to them.

"With Clemons, I thought we let her get a little too deep at the basket. I would like to shore that up a bit.''

--Kelley is averaging 23.7 points over the past four games and has scored 20 or more in three of those, including her 26-point performance Thursday. For the season, she has scored 20 or more points in 13 games.

--Zahui got her 40th career double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

 --Announced attendance for the evening session was 3,681, including the Gophers fans with the giant Stollings and Zahui heads; the busload of supporters from New Richland, Carlie Wagner's hometown; and the Blanket Lady, who clearly brought some good karma.

Gophers pregame: The postseason begins

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 5, 2015 - 7:32 PM

Gophers coach Marlene Stollings has been talking a lot this week about hitting the reset button. The Gophers have been extremely eager to get back on the floor after two road losses that they felt didn't reflect their team's true nature, and they tip off their Big Ten tournament opener in about one hour against Purdue at the Sears Centre in suburban Chicago.

It's a bit of a dangerous matchup for the sixth-seeded Gophers, despite Purdue's collapse during the second half of the season. The Boilermakers started the season 10-5 and beat the Gophers 90-88 in overtime on Jan. 22 at Williams Arena. They did not win again until finishing off a rally against Wisconsin on Wednesday night with a game-winning layup by April Wilson with three seconds left. That's 42 days between victories as Purdue finished last in the Big Ten for the first time in 31 years.

Purdue is the second-lowest scoring team in the Big Ten and is at the bottom of the league standings in field-goal percentage (39 percent). It also is near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounds (11th, 26 per game). The Gophers are statistically superior, but the Boilermakers will have confidence from having beaten them earlier this season, and from their victory over Wisconsin.

Stollings said the Gophers learned plenty from those losses at Nebraska and Iowa, when they lost their poise in loud arenas. They have shown the ability to shake off bad games--and regroup after larger losses, such as Rachel Banham's injury.

"They're very resilient,'' Stollings said. "They understand they didn’t play their best basketball (at Nebraska and Iowa). They know they're capable of much better. I think they have a renewed spirit. We'll hit the reset button going into the tournament. It's 0-0, and it's time for the Gophers to shine again.'' 

The folks who predict the NCAA tournament field have the Gophers firmly in the fold, including ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme, who has them pegged as a No. 8 seed in the Albany bracket. But Stollings said she will rest easier with another victory or two. The Gophers have lost their opening game in the Big Ten tournament in five of the past seven years; last year, as a No. 6 seed, they beat Wisconsin before falling to No. 3 seed Nebraska.

"I don’t know that we are secure in our belief (of making the NCAA tournament) yet,'' she said. "I know people are saying many things about it. I would love to go to the Big Ten tournament and see how big of a run we can make. Our goal would be to win the championship, obviously, but we're staying very focused game by game.

"We want to make sure we're in (the NCAA tournament). We don’t want to sit on March 16 and wonder, 'Are we in, or not? Are we on the bubble?' We want to know we're in, and we're just waiting on seeding.''

The venue for this year's event is in Hoffman Estates, Ill., about 50 miles from downtown Chicago. It's the second consecutive year the tournament has been held here; it returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis next spring. And it's been pretty empty. The crowd for Wednesday night's opening games--featuring Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State and Indiana--was announced as 3,471 in an 11,000-seat arena. The early session Thursday, with Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Rutgers, was announced as 4,941.

There were quite a few Gophers fans at the team hotel this afternoon, including a busload from New Richland, Minn., Carlie Wagner's hometown.

The Big Ten has been proudly noting that attendance during the regular season set a league record, with an announced total of 869,312 fans. Of course, this year's total includes two more teams. Maryland's average home attendance of 5,889 was fourth in the conference, and Rutgers' home average of 2,645 was 11th. The Gophers' home average of 4,460 was eighth. 

Zahui named Big Ten player of the year by media

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 2, 2015 - 5:34 PM

Amanda Zahui B. said she was "speechless'' Monday when she learned she had been named Big Ten player of the year by the media. The Gophers' sophomore center also was the only unanimous choice for first-team all-Big Ten honors by both coaches and media as the league's annual awards were announced on the Big Ten Network.

Senior forward Shae Kelley was a first-team pick by media and a second-team pick by coaches. Forward Carlie Wagner was named to the all-freshman team, and Zahui made the all-defensive team. Zahui is the fourth Gophers player to be named Big Ten player of the year and the first since Lindsay Whalen in 2002.

Zahui, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2014, joins Whalen, Carol Ann Shudlick (1994) and Laura Coenen (1983) as the only Gophers to take home the Big Ten's biggest individual prize. She leads the league with 12.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots per game and is fourth in scoring with 18.5 points per game.

The full list of winners is here:

http://btn.com/2015/03/02/see-2014-15-all-big-ten-womens-basketball-teams-honors/

Best line of the show announcing the awards: Zahui revealing that she has a box of Swedish chocolates under her bed, which will remain untouched until the season ends. When she was congratulated for her discipline and diligence in maintaining a healthy diet--one reason for her improvement this season--she said the box has "a lot of tape around it.''

Also on the show, Big Ten Network analyst Vera Jones picked the Gophers as her choice for "most intriguing team'' of the Big Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday. The Gophers open play Thursday night against the winner of Wednesday's Purdue-Wisconsin game.

I will be doing interviews shortly with some of the Gophers' honorees. Check startribune.com for more complete coverage of the awards, as well as full coverage of the tournament, beginning Wednesday.

Gophers postgame: Doomed by defense

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 1, 2015 - 6:55 PM

All signs indicated the Gophers would have to be at their best to beat Iowa on Sunday. The Hawkeyes had an 18-game winning streak at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. A crowd of 9,726 turned out to celebrate four well-loved seniors, and Iowa was eager to get some revenge for its 93-80 loss to the Gophers a couple of weeks ago when Amanda Zahui B. had an historic 39-point, 29-rebound performance.

But too many lapses hurt the Gophers for the second game in a row, sending them to the Big Ten tournament with a two-game losing streak. They played well in spurts during a 92-76 victory, rallying after a horrible start, but their inability to limit Iowa's three-point specialists wrecked their chances. Despite coach Marlene Stollings emphasizing the importance of defending the three, the Gophers couldn't keep up with Iowa's crisp ball movement and well-oiled offense.

So the Gophers head to the tournament on a bit of a down note. They are the No. 6 seed and open Thursday night, in the last game of the day, against the winner of Wednesday's first-round game between No. 11 seed Wisconsin and No. 14 seed Purdue. The Gophers beat Wisconsin twice this season--winning 72-60 on the road on Jan. 4 and 93-84 at Williams Arena on Feb. 11. They split with Purdue, winning 81-68 at West Lafayette on Jan. 1 and losing 90-88 in overtime at home on Jan. 22.

The Gophers did some things well Sunday. They outrebounded Iowa 48-34 and outscored it 40-24 in the paint. Shae Kelley was fearless in going to the hoop, as usual, leading the team with 29 points, and Zahui had 21 rebounds, seven blocks and 22 points. But the Gophers relied much too heavily on those two, and they got caught flat-footed on defense way too many times against a team that leads the Big Ten in three-pointers made (8.0 per game) and three-point percentage (38 percent). Iowa made 13 of 23 three-pointers, with Melissa Dixon hitting eight of 11.

"We just had trouble getting after their three-point shooters,'' Kelley said. "And them getting to the high post area, they were able to make plays from there. I'm sure they scouted us a little bit and did things differently. We had good spells where we defended them very well. But then, they would go on some spurts where they would get a couple threes on us, and that really hurt us in the end.''

While Stollings was most concerned about the defense, it wasn't a good sign that Kelley and Zahui got so little support. The rest of the team made nine of 32 field-goal attempts. Carlie Wagner made two of 10 shots, one game after making one of 12 in a loss at Nebraska. Mikayla Bailey was one of nine and fouled out. The bench contributed six points and played 15 minutes.

"Ideally, we would like to have three people in double figures and oftentimes four when we've won games,'' Stollings said. "We would like to have that third scorer for sure. Scoring 76 on the road, I'm pretty pleased with. But defensively, we were not solid in any way, shape or form, particularly in the second half, giving up 50 points.''

Stollings said the Gophers must "stay locked into'' their scouting report and not allow their concentration to drift, as it did against Iowa--particularly Dixon--on Sunday. Dixon is No. 2 in NCAA Division I with 3.61 three-pointers per game, and she is third in Big Ten history with 311 career three-pointers entering the game. The senior was clearly fired up for her last regular-season game at home.

"We have to stay focused, stay engaged the entire game, and feed off of each other,'' Kelley said. "When we're talking, moving, talking to each other, that’s when we're playing the best, when we're defending the best. That's key to us going into the tournament.''


 

Gophers pregame: Tall task at Iowa

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 1, 2015 - 2:06 PM

The pregame blog is going up a little late today, because Iowa forgot to leave my press pass at Carver-Hawkeye Arena--and it took them a very long time to sort it out. As an Iowa native, I'm outraged smiley

I'm in a loud and rapidly filling arena that is going to be an exceptionally hostile environment for the Gophers this afternoon. The Hawkeyes are 15-0 at home this season and have not lost here in 18 games dating to last season. The Gophers are going to have to overcome a lot to get that 23rd victory that would tie the program record. That said, their 93-80 victory over Iowa on Feb. 17 was masterful.

Coach Marlene Stollings is confident that Amanda Zahui B. will be able to handle double- and triple-teams today because of her height advantage. Iowa center Bethany Doolittle is an inch shorter and had a tough time with Zahui in the game at Williams Arena. She also said the Gophers carry lots of confidence into the game from the earlier victory, a big factor for this team.

"We know they're going to be better on their home floor,'' Stollings said of Iowa. "They've got four seniors, and it's senior day. It will be a tough environment, but I think our kids are confident in terms of the matchup.''

Shooting and defending the three-point shot will be critical today. Stollings also is looking for another step forward from freshman Carlie Wagner. "She's being defended at a higher level in the last two to four games,'' she said. "That's forcing her to go to another level quickly, which you wouldn’t typically see until her sophomore year. The physical piece, the ability to get her shot off against a tough defender, those are things we're looking at going into the tournament here.''

Iowa, by the way, has won its regular-season home finale in each of the past 10 seasons.

Enjoy the game!

RACHEL BLOUNT

Zahui B says she "can do better''

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Basketball, Gophers Updated: February 23, 2015 - 4:39 PM

Welcome to Fast Break, a blog that will keep you updated on Gophers women's basketball.

As we enter the final week of the regular season, lots of people are still talking about Amanda Zahui B.'s monster performances last week. The Gophers center was honored by espnW on Monday, chosen as its national women's basketball player of the week after amassing 66 points, 56 rebounds and nine blocks in two giant victories against No. 13 Iowa and Michigan.

Zahui's feats drew tweets from NFL star Larry Fitzgerald and Gophers legends Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville, and those massive numbers--39 points and a Big-Ten record 29 rebounds against Iowa, 27 points and 27 boards against Michigan--wowed people who wouldn't normally pay attention to women's basketball. Monday, she offered another surprise when she was asked what she thought about those numbers.

"You can do better,'' Zahui said she thought to herself. "Last game, I accidentally glanced up at where my name popped up (on the Williams Arena ribbon board), and it said I had 26 (rebounds). I really tried to get 29.

"That's the goal, always trying to become better. If I set a goal or set a record, then I need to break it.''

The Gophers, now 22-6, finish the regular season with games Tuesday at Nebraska and Sunday at Iowa. Gophers coach Marlene Stollings believes one more victory would solidify the Gophers' claim to an NCAA tournament invitation, and the team is battling for one of those all-important top-four seeds in the Big Ten tournament. With 14 teams in the league now, the new format gives the top four teams byes into Friday's quarterfinals.

Stollings said after Saturday's win over the Wolverines that Zahui, a sophomore, "has the opportunity to become a global phenom'' by the time she completes her Gophers career. Monday, Stollings said she had challenged her entire team to elevate its game now that the stakes are increasing, and Zahui followed through.

"I definitely had to play more aggressive, and just be that player that takes on that bigger role,'' Zahui said. "I don’t feel I had played very well the games before these two. I told myself, 'You have to stand up. We're getting closer to March.'''

RACHEL BLOUNT

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