Better defense could help Gophers women reach NCAA basketball tournament

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 12:12 AM

The Gophers were the Big Ten’s top defensive team in nonconference play, an area they struggled with last year.

Gopher guard Rachel Banham, center, can be frightening on offense, but she also averages nearly four rebounds per game.

Photo: File photo by RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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Rachel Banham had been thinking about this for a while. Two years, probably, two seasons filled with a lot of scoring but not enough team success. So when the Gophers guard was asked what would make the upcoming Big Ten Conference season a success, there was no hesitation.

Finish at or near the top in the conference, she said. And, for the first time since 2009, make the NCAA tournament.

If that doesn’t happen?

“I will not be happy,” she said.

Banham, All-Big Ten as a sophomore, is back, as are the top four scorers from last season’s team that went 18-14 overall and 7-9 in the conference. The Gophers finished second in the conference in scoring.

They have added redshirt freshman center Amanda Zahui B. to that group, and is in a conference that at this point doesn’t appear to have a dominant team.

One of the biggest problems the Gophers had last season was that, no matter how much they scored, the other team often scored more. Coach Pam Borton said she thinks Zahui B. will make their offense even more potent while anchoring the defense.

“We gave up a lot of high-percentage shots around the rim last year,” Borton said. “Our No. 1 need was to have a rim protector.”

As Big Ten play commences, Zahui B. leads the conference in blocked shots (3.54 per game), good for fifth nationally as of Dec. 29. The 6-5 Swede is also first in the Big Ten in rebounding (11.2).

With someone to protect the rim inside, the Gophers guards can be more aggressive on the perimeter. It’s risky to make too much of nonconference stats, but the Gophers, 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense last season, are first in both fewest points allowed (55.9) and in lowest opponents’ field goal percentage (33.3).

That’s two reasons why Borton is optimistic.

“We definitely can contend for a Big Ten title,” she said. “I mean, we’ve had some great wins. We’ve played some tough teams, teams more athletic than us, and we’ve won. I think there’s a lot more we can do to get better, but we’ve got a great point guard and we’ve got a great center.

“We need to get the other people around those two kids playing a little bit better.”

If Banham and Zahui B. stay healthy, they are probably a good enough 1-2 punch to make Minnesota competitive in just about every conference game. But Borton needs to find a consistent No. 3 scoring option.

Micaëlla Riché, who played her first three seasons at center, has moved to the forward position with the emergence of Zahui B., and the transition remains a work in progress. Guards Shayne Mullaney and Sari Noga are three-point threats. But who will be that No. 3 option game-in and game-out?

“I think that’s been pretty inconsistent,” Borton said. “[Riché] has stepped up at times, Sari has stepped up, Shayne has stepped up at times. We just need one on any given night right now. The kids are trying. They know. They know we need a third scorer.”

But, at least at the start of Big Ten play, two might be enough. With Banham leading the way the Gophers were competitive last season. The addition of a top-notch center should make a big difference.

And Banham is ready to see the team take the next step.

“I’ve reached a lot of my individual goals,” she said. “But I want us to reach the NCAA tournament level, compete for a Big Ten championship. I think we can do it, for sure.’’

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