Kiara Buford knows how it feels to be the scorer everyone else relies upon. The Gophers guard had seen that responsibility fall to freshman Rachel Banham in the past two games, and she knew it had to end.
Buford had made only six of 26 shots in back-to-back losses to Purdue and Michigan. Thursday, the senior made six of 11, finishing with 22 points to pace the Gophers to a 71-65 victory over Michigan State at Williams Arena. Banham had another strong performance, with 16 points and a team-high seven rebounds. But this time, she got ample help, with Buford leading the way.
Jackie Voigt added a season-high 11 points, and Micaella Riche came off the bench to contribute nine as the Gophers (11-9, 3-3 Big Ten) found much better balance in their scoring. The victory ended a four-game losing streak to the Spartans (12-7, 4-2) and backed up coach Pam Borton's contention that the Gophers can be very good if every player fulfills her role.
"I've been in Rachel's shoes, being the only one scoring," Buford said. "I really wanted to relieve her of that.
"One of my jobs on the team is to score, and if I'm not doing that, I feel like I'm not giving my team what it needs to be successful. I was glad I was able to hit some shots."
The Gophers never trailed, and they took the lead for good when Riche's two free throws put them ahead 17-15 with 10 minutes, 26 seconds left in the first half. They led by as many as 12 on their way to a 38-27 halftime lead.
Still, they couldn't finish without giving the announced crowd of 3,082 a little drama. With 1:18 remaining, the Gophers led 65-59. Michigan State sent them to the free-throw line 12 times in that final 78 seconds, and the Gophers made only six of those, giving the Spartans plenty of opportunities to pull closer. But Michigan State missed four of five shots down the stretch.
Buford spent some extra time working on her shot the past few days, hoping to get back to form -- and to erase the sting of the Gophers' collapse at Michigan, when they saw a 10-point lead evaporate in the second half. Instead of settling for outside shots, she attacked the rim.
Voigt and Katie Loberg, who combined to make six of seven field-goal attempts, also shored up an inside game that has been spotty this season. The Gophers scored 40 points in the paint.
Michigan State whittled a 14-point Gophers lead to six with 9:43 left. Buford said her team was so tightly focused on its game plan that it didn't leave itself any room to panic. The Spartans got no closer, as the Gophers showed much more poise on a night when several of them took a turn in the spotlight.
"I'm very proud of how we approached this game mentally," Borton said. "We did a great job of attacking the entire night on offense and defense. Kiara got back to her game, and that's just attacking and getting in the lane and doing the things she's really good at.
"This was a great win. We beat a very good team in Michigan State. A lot of people really stepped up, and that's what we need for this team to win."