After a second-day ousting at the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen has not yet decompressed from a disappointing end to the regular season.
It was tiring, she admitted. Trying, at times. The team’s goals set at the season’s onset were not met.
“Going into the season our goal was to make the NCAA tournament,’’ Whalen said. “Not reaching that goal is disappointing.’’
It was a trying few months. There was the suspension of Destiny Pitts in January and Pitts’ subsequent decision to enter the transfer portal. There was the decision by seniors Taiye and Kehinde Bello not to travel to what turned out to be a loss at Illinois in support of Pitts, and their eventual return.
Senior Jasmine Brunson missed two games while in concussion protocol after taking an elbow to the face midway through the Gophers’ two-overtime victory over Rutgers.
The team struggled to score in the wake of Pitts’ exit. The team did win three straight games and four of six after Pitts’ departure, but the regular season ended with six straight losses.
But Whalen is still able to find some reason for optimism.
“I was happy the team was able to finish as a group the last month and a half,’’ Whalen said. “That they were able to finish the season together. That win [vs. Penn State] at the Big Ten tournament was a highlight.’’
Whalen liked the development of freshmen Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia. Powell was a consensus member of the Big Ten all-freshman team, and Scalia was named to the team by members of the media. Powell began as the backup point guard before moving into the starting lineup for the final 12 games, scoring in double figures in 11 of them. Scalia moved into the starting lineup in the second game. Powell ended up as the Gophers’ leading scorer (12.1 points per game) and was the top freshman scorer in the Big Ten during the regular season. Scalia was fourth on the team in scoring (10.8).
Freshman center Klarke Sconiers came on late, having her best game in the Gophers’ loss to Ohio State on Thursday.
The Gophers will also have Gadiva Hubbard (11.2 ppg) back as a starter at guard.
But there is still much work to do.
“No question the bar will be raised next season,’’ Whalen said.
Job 1 is the team’s culture. “That is on the top of my mind,’’ she said. “That’s the No. 1 thing, to establish a strong culture, a winning culture.’’
But there are holes to fill.
Brunson, the player most credited by Whalen for keeping the team together, will graduate. Both Taiye Bello — one of the best defending and rebounding centers in program history — and her sister Kehinde will graduate, as will Masha Adashchyk, a top player off the bench.
Whalen has two recruits coming who are ranked in the top 100 by ESPN’s Hoopgurlz, in Columbus, Ohio, guard Alexia Smith (No. 46) and New Berlin, Wis., center Erin Hedman (No. 75) as well as high-scoring guard Caroline Strande from Racine, Wis. Also, highly regarded wing Kadiatou Sissoko from France, who sat out this season after transferring from Syracuse, will be eligible. Sissoko was ranked No. 11 by Hoopgurlz in the 2018 recruiting class.
“With what is coming in and what’s coming back, I feel there is enough there to really compete and get this going in the right direction,’’ Whalen said. “I have a lot of optimism for us.’’
The biggest concern is the post. Taiye Bello became the fifth player in program history with 1,000 rebounds, and she was the team’s best interior defender.
“That’s our No. 1 concern for next year, who will fill that role,’’ Whalen said. “I feel good about how Klarke finished the season. But we’re missing one of the best centers in program history, and those will be huge holes to fill, for sure.’’