Halfway through the season, it's evident that Rachel Banham is the most exciting player the Gophers women have had in years.
He tried to go incognito, pulling a woolly cap down low over his famous face. But Rachel Banham and her Gophers teammates instantly recognized Ricky Rubio, and they weren't letting the Timberwolves idol get away without posing for a few pictures.
"We all pretty much attacked him," said Banham, laughing about the scene that unfolded at the airport Sunday as the Gophers women's basketball team returned from a loss at Michigan. Coach Pam Borton was laughing, too, for a slightly different reason. "Just imagine how he felt," she told her freshman point guard. "That's how you're going to feel one of these days."
Banham is already drawing that kind of attention among basketball fans. She hasn't yet reached the level of fame that gets a player recognized at the airport or the grocery store or the movie theater, but Borton sees it coming.
Before Banham ever set foot on campus, she shouldered the weight of outsized expectations, anointed as the star who could pull Gophers basketball out of its doldrums. The prodigy from Lakeville North never felt burdened by that, and she has outshined even the loftiest predictions. This week, after scoring a career-high 28 points against Michigan, she was named Big Ten freshman of the week for the fourth time this season.
Like all great point guards -- including Gophers legend Lindsay Whalen, to whom she is frequently compared -- Banham can read and react quickly as she runs the offense. She is cool under pressure and has a fearlessness uncommon for a freshman. Part of that might be genetic; both of her parents are police officers, and she plans to follow her mother's career path as a sex-crimes investigator. For now, Banham is content to keep building a case as the Gophers' most exciting player in years.
"I didn't know I was going to be able to put up the numbers I have," said Banham, who leads the Gophers in points (15.5 per game), minutes (33.8) and three-pointers (31). "I expected to be a scorer. That's what the coaches told me they needed. But things are going a little better than I thought they would."
Borton feels the same way -- and she expected Banham to be an overachiever. In her seventh college game, Banham hit a close-range jumper with 0.6 seconds left to beat Virginia Tech. She is averaging 20.2 points in Big Ten play, ranking her third in the league. Sunday, when the rest of the Gophers starters scored a total of two points in the first half, she poured in 18.
"Some of the performances she's putting on, I'm thinking, 'How much better can she get offensively?'" Borton said. "It's her confidence, her takeover ability. She's continuing to grow as a player, and I like where she's at right now."
Banham has been on this trajectory since second grade. Her father, retired Minneapolis police captain Don Banham, is a former college football player who steered all four of his children into sports.
Banham and his wife, Minneapolis police Sgt. Melissa Banham, never missed an event -- or an opportunity to guide their kids' development. Don used to shoot with Rachel in the gym, while Melissa rebounded for her. Rachel also did backyard strength and agility drills with her football-playing brothers, Cole and Blake.
After games, Don Banham always debriefed with his daughter, suggesting ways in which she might improve. That constructive criticism wasn't always fun, Rachel said, but it toughened her up. And throwing herself into sports took her mind off her parents' work.
During a 28-year career in Minneapolis, Don Banham worked in units that included narcotics, street crime, vice and the SWAT team. Melissa worked nights in a rough part of town. "I couldn't fall asleep sometimes," Rachel said. "I'd think, 'Is she coming home in the morning?' Being with my siblings made it easier, and we're all really active, which kept us distracted from it. And I knew my parents were good at what they do."
So good that she wants to follow them -- along with her grandfather, aunts and other relatives also in law enforcement. Banham plans to major in the sociology of criminal deviance and loves watching "Law and Order: SVU."
She said she will need to get even tougher to pursue that line of work. She's already proving her nerve on the court to a wider audience, which could make the aspiring public servant a very public figure by the end of her Gophers career.
"Even when she was playing varsity as an eighth-grader, she wasn't afraid to take charge," Don Banham said. "College was another giant step, but she's handled it so well. It is absolutely natural to her."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org
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