The Big Ten season was supposed to present a fresh challenge for Rachel Banham, throwing the Gophers freshman point guard into a withering crucible of high-pressure games against stronger competition. That was the theory, at least.
In Monday's 84-43 thrashing of Indiana, Banham displayed the same unflappable demeanor she's shown through most of the season -- with even better results. The rookie saved the finest game of her college career for the Big Ten home opener, pacing the Gophers with 21 points in their most lopsided victory of the season. Banham sparked a fabulous first half by hitting all five of her attempts from three-point range, including three during an 18-0 run that buried the hapless Hoosiers.
In her first Big Ten game, a 57-53 loss at No. 20 Purdue last Friday, Banham led the Gophers with 15 points. Monday's crowd of 3,318 at Williams Arena saw her record career bests for points, three-pointers and rebounds. Banham, who is 5-9, grabbed 11 rebounds to lead her team in that category as well, providing more evidence that she's capable of confounding expectations.
She and her teammates cleaned up the mistakes that spoiled their league opener, committing half as many turnovers and dramatically improving their shooting. The Gophers scored a season-best 48 points in the first half and led by as many as 46.
"I have a good amount of confidence," said Banham, who leads the Gophers in scoring at 14.3 points per game. "There are things I need to work on, but I feel good about it. I've just got to keep improving."
Playing mentally tough
There isn't much Banham can do to surprise coach Pam Borton at this point. Borton was pleased, however, to see Banham eliminate from her memory the eight turnovers she committed at Purdue and blossom further as a scorer and a leader.
The coach also appreciated her team's continued devotion to defense.
The Gophers harassed the outmatched Hoosiers from the start, outrebounding them 59-39 and forcing them into 12 first-half turnovers. Indiana shot just 24 percent and endured long scoreless stretches, including a drought of 5 minutes, 10 seconds in the first half that saw a 7-6 deficit turn to a 25-6 hole.
"Each and every game, I'm learning something even more about Rachel," Borton said. "I learned a lot about her on the road at Purdue, and I think she learned a lot about herself. That was a tough environment; I think she grew from it, and she bounced back and played extremely well.
"This was a great win. I'm really pleased with our defense and rebounding, which is something we've been trying to get back to here."
Indiana suffered a significant loss last month when senior captain Georgie Jones, a St. Paul native, tore the ACL in her right knee. The 6-2 center will miss the rest of the season, leaving a hole in a young Hoosiers roster that has not yet learned how to deal with the unexpected.