Marlene Stollings led the Gophers women’s basketball program to the NCAA tournament in her first season as head coach last year, the team’s first NCAA berth since 2008-09. This year’s Gophers are 7-4 in the Big Ten after defeating Rutgers on Thursday. As the Gophers prepare for an important final seven-game stretch starting Sunday at Northwestern, Stollings chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand:
Q Not a lot of teams in the Twin Cities have been winning lately, but your team has won five of its past six. If any fans are hopping on the bandwagon, what’s your message to them?
A I think one of the big things is we only have three home games left, and we have one of the most special players to ever wear a Minnesota uniform in Rachel Banham. I think people shouldn’t miss an opportunity to see her in one of these final three home games. She’s a rarity. Players like her don’t come around that often.
Q Your overall record and Big Ten record [15-7, 7-4] are strong, but your RPI as of Friday is 101. That suggests there is a lot of work left to do. What does this team need to do to get back to the NCAA tournament?
A I’m not too consumed with the RPI at this point. It’s about game-by-game, winning. Typically the magic number is 20-plus [wins]. … We’re playing everybody, with the exception of one team, that’s either around us or above us in the standings. It’s a grand opportunity. We control our destiny at this point. That’s how we’d like to keep it, and not put it in other people’s hands.
Q This team generates a lot of points from the perimeter. Is it a challenge to find enough shots for everyone, including Banham and Carlie Wagner?
A Our team is extremely unselfish, which is fun to coach. We don’t have to worry about someone shooting the ball — if someone is more open, they usually make the pass. That part is nice to have. In terms of getting them open, it’s a game-by-game strategy.
Q Has it been a big adjustment coming from last year with Amanda Zahui B. providing such a post presence to this year having a much different offense?
A That’s part of adjusting to what you have. I think our staff and our team has done that nicely. As you said, after Rachel went down last year [due to a torn ACL in December 2014], everything went through Amanda. Now we’re four guards and one post most nights.
Q Is there a part of you that still wonders what it would have been like to have Rachel and Amanda together and healthy for a full season?
A We obviously don’t spend much time on it at this point. Absolutely we would acknowledge that there are those moments. … The moment Amanda decided to [turn pro] officially, we moved forward as anybody would. Rachel is having a phenomenal year.
Q Coming back off such a major injury, did you imagine Banham would be this effective this season?
A I think it’s unpredictable, but … Rachel is determined to have the best season of her entire career. And because of that, we had high expectations that you would see the most well-conditioned, well-practiced player that we have seen to date. I think she’s just really hitting her stride.