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.