This was not supposed to happen, according to Syracuse women’s basketball coach Quentin Hillsman.
Hillsman was talking Thursday night, after his 12th-ranked Orange had lost to No. 20 Minnesota at Williams Arena.
And by this, he meant Gophers forward Taiye Bello.
Bello had just finished with a career-high 20 points. More important, she also had grabbed 18 rebounds, including 10 on offense. By herself, Bello had rebounded nearly a quarter of the Gophers’ misses on a night when Minnesota improved to 6-0 despite shooting just 34.8 percent.
After it was over, Hillsman — whose team has now played four ranked teams — said Bello was the best rebounder he’d seen.
“By far,’’ he said. “And I know it doesn’t look like it, but we game-planned for that. We said, ‘When the ball goes up on the rim, we are going to face box out.’ I told a player that was in her area, ‘If you get the rebound, you’re wrong, because you should be on her nose.’ We didn’t do a good job of executing that, obviously.’’
Nobody really has.
After Friday’s games, Bello is fourth in the nation in rebounds per game (14.3), fourth in offensive rebounds per game (6.2) and 10th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate (23.1).
As the Gophers — who host Air Force on Sunday afternoon — were finishing off Thursday’s 82-78 victory over the Orange, there were two dagger plays. One was Kenisha Bell’s twisting three-point play with 1:14 left that put the Gophers up six. The other was Bello’s offensive rebound of Jasmine Brunson’s missed free throw with 43 seconds left.
This is exactly the sort of impact first-year coach Lindsay Whalen was looking for when she installed the 6-2 junior in the starting lineup shortly after fall practice began.
“She made plays nobody else can make,’’ Whalen said.
Whalen knows the value of great rebounding. She played nine years with Lynx teammate Rebekkah Brunson, one of the best rebounders in league history. And she sees similarities. Both are strong but wiry. Both can get into places others can’t. Both have the ability to see the ball and block out everything else.
“I’m not really sure you can teach it,’’ Whalen said. “You can tell people about angles, how to box out. But the way a person like Taiye or Rebekkah goes and gets the ball? That’s there, innately. A player like that wins games for you.’’
As ferocious a rebounder as she can be, Bello is rather quiet off the court. After Saturday’s practice she said she wasn’t even aware the Orange was trying to do anything different to slow her down.
“I’m so focused on the ball, I’m not focused on what other people are doing,’’ she said. “Sometimes you can get caught up ball-watching. I think a lot of it is a mentality. Part of it is my athleticism.
“But when it comes to the mentality part, just going and getting it, but also being patient and timing it properly, too.’’
Last season under coach Marlene Stollings, Bello played in every game but she only started three and averaged 16-plus minutes per game. She was fifth in the nation in rebounding rate last year and had 121 offensive rebounds, fourth most in program history.
This year she has four double-doubles already.
“The other night we shot 34 percent and still won,” Whalen said. “Players like [Bello] win games for you.’’