South Bend, Ind. – As soon as the news of Rachel Banham’s injury began to spread, the text messages piled up on Marlene Stollings’ phone. “It was kind of like going to a funeral,” the Gophers coach said. “It was like, ‘It’s over.’ ”
A team built around the splendid senior guard had opened the season 9-1. And a team without Banham, the preseason Big Ten player of the year? No one expected it to go anywhere, leading even Stollings’ friends and supporters to send condolences to the first-year Gophers coach.
Banham’s season ended when she tore the ACL in her right knee on Dec. 10, in a 68-55 victory over North Dakota. The Gophers’ season, to the surprise of many, kept right on rolling. Powered by affection and respect for their leader — and aided by Banham’s transition to player-coach — the team put together a 23-9 record and its first NCAA tournament berth in six years.
When the eighth-seeded Gophers open play in the tournament Friday against ninth-seeded DePaul at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion, Banham will be on the sidelines offering advice and encouragement. “It’s super hard to sit here and watch it, because I want to be playing,” said Banham, who plans to return for a fifth year of eligibility next season. “This was my dream to do this. But I’m so proud. We proved people wrong.”
In the span of 19 days, the Gophers’ players and coaches came to understand they could withstand the loss of one of the greatest players in program history. Though they emphasized that the story is not over yet, the tale of how they refused to be written off has already made this a memorable season.
“The thing I’m most proud of them for is that they trusted us, they believed, and they responded,” Stollings said. “And nobody, I mean nobody, gave them a chance.”
The first 48 hours
With a little more than eight minutes left in the first half against North Dakota, Banham raced off on a fast break. Stollings felt so certain she would score that the coach turned her head to point out something to a player on the bench.
She heard a piercing wail, and the gym fell silent. “Every coach knows that scream,” Stollings said. “I didn’t realize who it was at first. Then I saw everyone’s faces, and it was like they saw a ghost.”
As the pain took hold, Banham’s emotions veered from anger to terror to utter despair, as she feared she would never play again. Stollings spent halftime trying to calm her distraught team. The best thing they could do, she told them, was to win that game for their leader — planting the seeds for what would become the theme of the season. The Gophers prevailed with a strong second half, then boarded their charter flight for a short and somber ride home.
Banham sat up front with Stollings so she could keep her leg outstretched and elevated. As Banham wept quietly, the coach said, she could feel the anxiety and fear creeping through her team. The following day, the Gophers encouraged Banham to stay positive and expect good news. “But you feel that,” she said of the pain in her knee, “and you know.”
An MRI exam confirmed she would need season-ending surgery. Knowing how emotional Banham would be, her teammates pledged not to allow her to be alone. They all gathered at an apartment and brought her gifts: books, candles and so many bags of Skittles that she still hasn’t finished them.
When Stollings got the call from Banham’s doctor, she stopped listening as soon as she heard his sorrowful tone of voice. With two games to go before the start of the Big Ten season, she and her staff had to figure out how to fill in for a floor general who averaged 18.6 points, 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.
“My mind just started going all over, thinking, ‘How are we going to recover from this? What are we going to do?’ ” Stollings said. “It took 48 hours for me and our staff to gather ourselves, because it was that big of a loss. She played three different positions for us. Everything went through her.
“The magnitude of it was just very real in that moment. And we weren’t quite sure how our kids would respond.”
At that point — only 10 games into the season — Stollings still was learning about the emotional makeup of her players. While she began plotting how to redesign the Gophers’ offense to run without Banham, the players brainstormed ways to support their fallen teammate.
The fact that she wouldn’t be playing alongside them didn’t change their desire to make the NCAA tournament in Banham’s senior season. To remind themselves of that goal every day, center Amanda Zahui B. came up with a slogan: Buckets for Banham. The team voted to use that as their battle cry and put it on T-shirts they would wear in warmups.
They intended to wear them only once, but they soon realized those words were too meaningful to give up. The Gophers wore the shirts before every game, a gesture that touched Banham deeply.
“The first time they wore them, they wouldn’t let me come in the locker room,” Banham said. “When they came out wearing the shirts, it was a huge surprise. I instantly started crying, and it was tears of happiness.”
The Nebraska comeback
In the coaches’ office, Stollings also had decided she was not going to back off the goal of getting to the NCAAs. Banham cast such a wide influence that the coaches knew everyone would have a new role to play. The staff made statistical calculations to determine goals for each player. In a team meeting, they gave each player a sheet outlining what was expected. Guard Shayne Mullaney was asked to score at least eight points per game and increase her rebounds and assists. Zahui was given some nonnumerical objectives.
“I had to be a bigger leader, verbally and with my actions,” she said. “I had to score more, I had to rebound more, play more defense, try to stay on the floor and not foul out. I just knew everyone would step up.”
Banham was not exempt. Stollings asked her to become a player-coach for the remainder of the season, a role she felt reluctant to accept.
Stollings told Banham that no player could replace her leadership. “She told me, ‘We still need you,’ ” Banham said. “At first, I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted to lie in bed. Then, once we started playing again, I got my mind right, and I got excited.”
Mullaney admitted that she felt some doubts about whether the Gophers could continue to excel without Banham. Stollings knew it would be critical for them to win immediately and build confidence.
The Gophers won their final two nonconference games and met their first true test in their Big Ten opener on Dec. 29. The Gophers were down 17 points to 12th-ranked Nebraska, but with Banham offering unfiltered advice from the sideline they rallied to shock the Huskers in Williams Arena 72-69.
At that moment, Banham, Stollings and Mullaney said, they knew the Gophers would not have to settle. They could continue to look forward, not backward, which they pledged to keep doing Friday.
“We take a lot of pride in what we’ve done so far,” Mullaney said. “We really miss Rachel. But we didn’t give up. And we’re going to keep on playing for her. We’re not done.”