The Gophers women’s basketball team was leading in the fourth quarter at Nebraska on Sunday when the Huskers — and their crowd — went to a new level. The crowd got loud and the team went into a zone and the Gophers’ offense sputtered. A six-point lead with four minutes left disappeared in Nebraska’s 12-0 run to end the game.
This has been a difficult trend for a Gophers team that, after going undefeated in nonconference play, has started out 2-5 in the Big Ten. In a loss to Iowa they were outscored 49-23 in the second half. In a home loss to Illinois, the Gophers led by 17 in the third quarter, only to lose 66-62.
In Nebraska the Huskers outscored the Gophers 25-11 in the fourth quarter.
The Gophers lack of depth is a concern here, no question. Injuries have forced first-year coach Lindsay Whalen to rely heavily on her starters, and fatigue might be an issue down the stretch in games.
But so has this: Trying to solve opponents’ zone defense.
“Teams are going to zone us,” Whalen said Wednesday, before her team’s final practice in preparation for Thursday’s home game against Purdue. “Illinois went to a zone in the second half. Nebraska had to go to zone in the fourth. … I haven’t seen a zone since I was in college at some point. It’s been interesting, a good challenge to find ways [to attack it]. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”
It is a puzzle that persists. The Gophers are geared to play against man-to-man defenses, with quickness at guard in Kenisha Bell and Jasmine Brunson. Against Iowa, the Hawkeyes opened in man-to-man defense and the Gophers raced to a quick, early lead.
Against the zone there have been problems. Last year’s Gophers had a trio of outside shooters in then-senior Carlie Wagner, Gadiva Hubbard and conference Freshman of the Year Destiny Pitts. Wagner is gone and Hubbard still is recovering from foot surgery and could, at some point, become a candidate for a redshirt.
That has put enormous pressure on Pitts, who has taken as many three-point attempts in conference play (45) as the rest of the team combined.
A 37.3 percent shooter from long range as a freshman while averaging 13.3 points and 7.2 rebounds, this year Pitts is shooting 31.0 percent on threes, 38.5 percent overall and averaging 12.4 points.
“I’m not a freshman anymore,” she said. “After a good season like last year a lot of teams have started to focus in on me. I’ve noticed that.”
Without Wagner and Hubbard to help space the floor, Pitts has found some close quarters, and that probably isn’t going to change.
Still, Whalen said it’s on everyone to make things easier for Pitts.
“We also have people turning down good looks,” Whalen said. “So we need to be to be confident and shoot it.”
That is one thing Pitts said she’s always had.
“You have to keep shooting,: she said. “That’s how you make shots. Eventually, it will go in. That’s how I like to think of it. I’m not trying to get too down on it. I’m still shooting. That’s how you get out of a slump.”