In the days after her season-ending knee surgery, Rachel Banham already felt drawn to stay with the Gophers for another year. But given the emotional and physical pain swirling around her torn right ACL — and the abrupt end of a season packed with outsized expectations — the senior guard wanted to take her time before making it official.
She talked to her parents, her teammates, her coaches. That only strengthened Banham’s feelings about returning for a final season of eligibility, leading to the Lakeville native’s announcement Friday that she will come back next season. As her teammates whooped and applauded at a news conference, Banham explained that she couldn’t abandon her pursuit of Lindsay Whalen’s scoring record or her desire to play in the NCAA tournament.
Banham injured her knee Dec. 10 game at North Dakota in the 10th game of the season. Gophers officials said the Big Ten is expected to grant her a medical-hardship waiver, which would allow her one more season of eligibility.
“I’m super excited to finish a lot of unfinished business on the court,’’ said Banham, who was named Big Ten preseason player of the year and was on watch lists for national player of the year awards.
“I have a lot of stuff unfinished: NCAA tournament, records, being with my teammates. I love my team, and I want to be able to finish on the court with my jersey on, not on the sidelines.’’
Before her injury, Banham was averaging 20 points, five assists and 4.7 rebounds. She is 107 points short of breaking Whalen’s career scoring record of 2,285 points. The Gophers have gone 7-2 in her absence and are ranked No. 21 in the nation with a 16-3 record.
Banham said her rehabilitation is ahead of schedule. She no longer needs crutches, though she wore a large knee brace Friday. The time frame for returning to basketball activities is six to nine months.
Banham considered all her options, including entering the WNBA draft this spring. But along with chasing the records and an NCAA tournament appearance, she said her parents love watching her play at the U, and she is excited to get another year in coach Marlene Stollings’ offense.
Stollings said she wanted to give Banham all the time she needed to make her choice but admitted she was “a little anxious’’ as she awaited an answer. The players were told Thursday, and they and Stollings still were emotional a day later.
“This is a monumental day in Gophers women’s basketball,’’ Stollings said. “Rachel’s decision to return speaks volumes about her trust and belief in her teammates, the Gophers community and fan base as well as her coaching staff and our philosophies.
“[Her return] will have significant impact on the future of this program. She’s one of the top players in the entire nation. For her to come back and represent on the college level, I think it’s extraordinary.’’
Since her injury, Banham has remained close to the team, giving advice, support and coaching assistance. Her teammates have dedicated the season to her and have been wearing “Buckets for Banham’’ T-shirts, a gesture that brought Banham to tears.
Gophers center Amanda Zahui B. came up with the idea for the shirts.
“I would love to play with Rachel for the rest of our lives,’’ she said. “We’re excited to have her back, and we’re excited for her to do something she wanted to do.’’
Banham is on schedule to graduate this spring with a degree in sociology and will attend graduate school during her final season. She is eager to repay teammates and coaches who have helped her through a heartbreaking injury.
“I was really leaning toward coming back the entire time,’’ she said. “It was just tough right after the injury. But I love it here.’’