The Gophers are getting strong inside play from Micaella Riche, who has embraced her role.
Every now and then, Micaella Riche shows she hasn't completely shed her headstrong ways. Gophers associate basketball coach Curtis Loyd recalled checking in with the junior forward last summer, to make sure she was following orders to rest on the team's day off -- and discovered she was running from campus to the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.
Loyd understood her urge to keep moving. Her unyielding stubbornness, and a crisis of confidence led Riche and her coaches to label her freshman season as a waste. Reluctant to adapt to the physical style required of a post player in the Big Ten, the 6-2 rookie wanted to cry every day over a career that seemed to be going nowhere.
Now she can't go forward fast enough. Once Riche got her mind right, she started the final seven games of her sophomore year and vowed not to reverse course. She enters Thursday's Big Ten home opener against Ohio State as the Gophers' most improved player, averaging 12.8 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds for a team whose hopes depend on her ability to thrive in the post.
A summer devoted to working on her game and her conditioning made Riche stronger, fitter and more confident. She is making 58.6 percent of her shots -- tops in the Big Ten and 10th in NCAA Division I -- and is co-captain with guard Rachel Banham.
With opponents concentrating on stopping Banham, the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten, Gophers coach Pam Borton said Riche must score in double digits every game. She also will be counted upon to rebound well, improve her defense and gain consistency. After resisting change as a freshman, Riche has come to embrace it, redirecting her strong will toward a more productive end.
"I've been waiting for this since my freshman year," said Riche, of Gloucester, Ontario. "After I stopped being so stubborn, that's when I started making progress. ... I had such high expectations coming here, and those first two years, I didn't do anything. Now I'm seeing success, and I just want to keep working. I have that hunger."
While Riche said she felt relieved to finally be tapping her potential, Banham said she is proud to see her friend break through.
"I'm glad for her and I'm glad for our team, because we need her," said Banham, who is averaging 20.6 points per game. "If you can't score inside, you're probably not going to win."
Once a finesse player
Though Riche didn't start playing basketball until ninth grade, she was a high school star and member of three Canadian junior national teams. She came to the Gophers as a finesse player and was determined to remain one.
In her first two seasons, Riche played just under 12 minutes per game, averaging 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds while resisting her coaches' efforts to shape her into a rugged Big Ten-style post player.
"Once she played a few games as a freshman and lost her confidence, she doubted herself," Loyd said. "We went back to the drawing board and started over with her skill set, with the way she played. And she blossomed after that."
Breaking into the starting lineup late last season inspired Riche to do everything possible to reach new heights as a junior. Running, weightlifting and yoga improved her stamina, strength and agility. Loyd helped her refine her game, using video of accomplished post players -- from former NBA star David Robinson to former Gophers great Janel McCarville -- to demonstrate proper footwork, positioning and body control.
Better touch, better hands
This season, Riche's improved touch around the basket has boosted her field-goal percentage. Banham, who used to tease her about dropping passes, said that rarely happens now.
"She's catching the ball so well," Banham said. "She's faster, she's smooth with the ball and she can attack."
But Riche has struggled to be consistent. She has scored more than 20 points in three games; in four others, she has finished with six or fewer. Borton said now that Riche has learned to score in many different ways -- via offensive rebounds, by drawing fouls and in transition -- she will be most productive if she stops worrying about her point total and concentrates on being a well-rounded player.
That is on her to-do list, along with sharpening her defense and free-throw shooting. Borton estimated Riche is about halfway to becoming the kind of player she can be. Now that she has a better idea of how to get there, Riche is determined to keep evolving.
"Things are just clicking," she said. "I know now what I need to do, and I have a lot more confidence, a lot more swag. I'm ready for this."
|NY Mets - LP: J. Hefner||2||FINAL|
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