Katie Loberg was in grade school when the Gophers women’s basketball team made its run to the Final Four in 2004, and as she matured into a standout at Princeton High School it became easy for her to envision herself following in the footsteps of Lindsay Whalen, Janel McCarville and other names.
Now the 6-4 senior is staring at the end of her college career and the distinct possibility she will never appear in an NCAA tournament.
“It’s very upsetting,” Loberg said. “It’s something you dream about doing since you’re little, and watching the Gophers go in 2004, I just kind of figured it was a given, something that was going to happen.”
The Gophers would be out of the tournament for a fourth consecutive year if their season was being judged as of now. But Minnesota gets another chance to pad that résumé — an overall record of 18-12 and 7-9 in the Big Ten — at this week’s Big Ten tournament, with a Thursday opener against an Ohio State team that the Gophers have already beaten twice.
Minnesota breathed some life into its NCAA hopes by winning its final two conference games — including a victory over league champ Penn State, which Minnesota would face again in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers might no longer need to win the Big Ten tournament to secure an NCAA bid, although anything less would leave them on that precarious perch known as “the bubble.”
“I think we’re in a great situation,” Gophers coach Pam Borton after her team’s strong conference finish, which included victories in the final two road games, at Ohio State and Indiana.
A tournament run would certainly help silence Borton’s critics. The Gophers suffered a fourth losing conference season in a row and have seen attendance slump to under 3,500 from almost 10,000 in 2003-04. Borton, who received a two-year contract extension — taking her through 2015-16 — in June from outgoing AD Joel Maturi, also failed to land either of the state’s two McDonald’s All-America high school seniors: Braham’s Rebekah Dahlman (Vanderbilt) and Hopkins’ Nia Coffey (Northwestern).
“That’s just the nature of the business,” Borton said of the criticism. “When we start worrying about what everyone else is saying, then we’re worried about the wrong things.”
Optimistic about future
Borton says she is optimistic about the future, both long and short term. The Gophers have been competitive against every team in the Big Ten with the exception of two one-sided losses to Nebraska — 84-63 on Jan. 20 and 80-56 on Feb. 3. And Nebraska is in the opposite bracket of the conference tourney.
The key for the Gophers, as it has been throughout the season, will be playing consistent defense. Borton’s trademark before this season was a tough, hard-nosed defense and an offense that was at times difficult to watch. But this winter the team has reversed its recent history, with All-Big Ten sophomore guard Rachel Banham fueling an offense that leads the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (.449) and is No. 2 in the conference in scoring (behind Penn State). Conversely, the Gophers are 11th in points allowed (66.1 per game) and opponent field-goal percentage (.400).
“We’ve always been able to be in games because we can defend teams,” Borton said. This team? Not so much.
“We’ve played 1-3-1, 2-3 zone, different things in our man-to-man,” she said. “We’ve tried trapping, full-court stuff — a lot of different things. But it’s just like it’s something different every time down the court.”
Borton is hopeful a corner was turned with excellent defensive performances in those road victories over Ohio State and Indiana.
“The team’s been up and down,” said Banham, who led the Big Ten in scoring. “We’ve had some really good wins, and some really bad losses. But every team goes through that. I think every day, every game, we’ve gotten better and learned. So overall, we’ve gone up.”
Big additions to come
That’s the direction Borton believes her program is headed. Despite losing out on Dahlman and Coffey, next year’s newcomers will include 6-5 redshirt Swedish center Amanda Zahui and two guards with size — Joanna Hedstrom of Minnetonka and Stabresa McDaniel from Texas — something the coach says her team needs to contend.
She also has four commitments for the 2014 class, led by New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva’s Carlie Wagner, a guard most rate on a par with Coffey and Dahlman. The Gophers also have commitments from a pair of Ohio centers and Benilde-St. Margaret’s point guard Grace Coughlin.
Borton can’t talk about commitments but says the future is “absolutely” promising.
“We’ve got our entire starting five returning next year, plus [Zahui], who has been able to get familiar with our system,” she said. “You look at the Big Ten and the hits other programs are going to take losing this year’s seniors, and I think a lot of programs are losing a lot.”
But for now, Borton and her players are happy to focus on the present and the possibility that an NCAA bid is still within reach.
Borton said this team “has a lot of life, a lot of energy left,” as opposed to “a lot of teams I’ve coached that this time of year have been like, they’re exhausted, they’re tired,” she said. “[With those teams] it was almost a drag coming to practice. You’re trying to find the emotional and mental energy to get through the rest of the season. I don’t feel like this team has really hit that wall at all.”
And so, Loberg, the Minnesota kid with those childhood dreams, still hopes for a happy ending.
“I can see it happening,” she said of gaining that coveted NCAA bid. “This team has so much potential.”