To Rachel Banham, the key can’t be found in a boxscore, or by examining the changing roles within the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team.
Yes, all that is important.
But another idea came to mind when the Gophers’ star guard was asked about the key to the team’s recent four-game Big Ten Conference winning streak, one that has brought the Gophers back from the edge and reinserted the team into the NCAA tournament conversation.
“We started playing more relaxed,” she said.
The Gophers started the season with high expectations, both from within the program and from the outside. There was talk — by coach Pam Borton — of being a factor in the conference race thanks to the outside-inside combination of Banham and redshirt freshman Amada Zahui B.
But that was before the Gophers started the conference season by losing four of five games, the beginning of a rocky road that included a 30-point loss at Penn State Jan. 26. It was after a loss at home to Iowa three days later that Borton sat down with her players and announced a team-wide attitude readjustment.
“I took all the pressure off the team,” Borton said. “I said we should not be worried about the [NCAA] tournament. We need to go out there and have fun and play free and not focus on what everybody on the outside is expecting us to do.”
An easy thing to say, more difficult to do. But the evidence suggests that the team has done it in its first four-game conference winning streak since the 2008-09 season. It is a streak that includes road wins at Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern, a streak made more impressive by injuries that have pared the team’s roster to seven available players.
The turnaround has moved the Gophers (17-9 overall, 6-6 in conference games) up to 30th in the RPI rankings.
But the streak won’t mean much if the Gophers don’t take advantage of the opportunity they’ve created. None of those four victories came against ranked opponents. And only Michigan currently has a winning conference record.
But, starting Thursday against Purdue, the Gophers will play two consecutive games against ranked opponents — Minnesota plays at Michigan State Monday — before the regular season ends with games at home against Indiana and Ohio State. It would appear an 8-8 conference record would put the Gophers in good position to get an at-large NCAA bid.
The key, Banham said, is staying relaxed.
“We were feeling the pressure, everybody talked about, ‘Well, will they get to the tournament this year?’ ” Banham said. “We were all feeling it, including myself. And I don’t usually let that get to me so much. But, the last four games, we’ve played better. Everyone is more relaxed.”
And the team looks a lot different from it did before the streak began.
Forward Jackie Johnson is out for the season with a knee injury. Guards Shayne Mullaney and Stabresa McDaniel are dealing with concussion issues, though McDaniel is expected back Monday.
Borton has altered roles for players. She decided to move Micaëlla Riché from the starting lineup to coming off the bench. Riché had struggled moving from center to power forward with the arrival of Zahui B. Now she’s the backup center. In her place, Kayla Hirt has moved into the power forward position the past four games. She had 16 points and eight rebounds in the Gophers’ last victory.
Borton also decided Banham should play the point, full-time. Mikayla Bailey has filled in well at guard, too; she had 10 assists against Northwestern.
“I think we have to get our home games,” Banham said of her team’s stretch run.
So, relax. Oh, and get ready for another long day. With so few players, everyone healthy plays a lot. Banham, for example, has played 159 out of 160 minutes during the winning streak.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Gosh, that bench looks nice, I want to take a sit,’ ’’ the guard said. “But I know I can’t.’’