On Friday, the Gophers women’s basketball team had a film session. It was productive, even if the subject matter — Thursday’s last-minute loss to Iowa — wasn’t easy to watch. Mistakes were noted, corrections were made, a game plan was discussed between coach Lindsay Whalen, her staff and the players.
Then the plan was — weather permitting — to board a plane Saturday to West Lafayette, Ind., where the Gophers will play Purdue on Sunday.
Of course, it was nowhere near this routine.
Whalen is in the midst of the toughest stretch of her coaching career — one that will influence not just the success of this season’s team but perhaps define her tenure in future years.
On the court, it’s been a difficult three weeks as the Gophers, starting with a New Year’s Eve loss to Ohio State, have dropped five consecutive games, all but one by three or fewer points. Off the court it has been difficult, too, for at least the last week, since the news of junior Destiny Pitts’ suspension broke before a loss in Illinois last Sunday.
That particular situation drew to something near a conclusion when Pitts, just hours before tipoff against Iowa on Thursday, announced her intention to transfer.
Reached Friday, Pitts’ father, Demetrus, said neither he nor Destiny wanted to comment further on her decision.
“It’s definitely been a challenging week for everybody involved,” Whalen said Friday. “My job now is to make sure we’re prepared for the road trip to Purdue and have a great game plan.”
Sisters Taiye and Kehinde Bello missed the trip to Illinois for what Pitts on Twitter — in the same post she announced she was leaving — described as support for her. Both returned by midweek and were available Thursday. But Kehinde did not play against Iowa, and Taiye didn’t play until the third quarter.
All of the aftershocks of Pitts’ decision have probably not been felt and, ultimately, could carry through to the offseason. In the wake of her announcement, several teammates used social media to wish Pitts well and show her support. Pitts was a leader on the team, and allegiances as well as friendships will remain.
On the other hand, in the wake of the Pitts news, the Gophers played hard and appeared unified while nearly upsetting the 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes in a 76-75 loss.
“It was a rivalry game and they were ready to play,” Whalen said of her team, which led by 13 in the fourth quarter before fading down the stretch. “They came out and competed right off the bat, right from the start. I liked their focus. I liked their fight. Now it’s just a matter of cleaning up those end-of-game execution things.”
At this point, as a coach in the middle of the season, this is what Whalen must focus on. Her team has been in games in close losses to Ohio State, Northwestern and Illinois, the latter while playing without both Bellos and Pitts.
She was heartened by the way her team played Thursday. But for Whalen, this — her second season coaching at her alma mater — has been an eye-opener. “People tell you it’s more than X’s and O’s,” she said. “But, until you experience going through a season, you might not appreciate that.”
Even before Pitts’ departure, next season’s team figured to look far different from this one, with both Bellos and guard Jasmine Brunson being seniors. Masha Adashchyk — whose minutes have soared in the past two games — is also a senior.
Gadiva Hubbard will return. Freshmen Jasmine Powell — a high school teammate of Pitts’ in Michigan — and Sara Scalia have played well. Scalia, for example, has led or tied for the team lead in points the past two games. Thursday she had her first collegiate double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The Gophers will have a number of new players who should start or get significant playing time nest season. That list includes:
• Kadiatou Sissoko. From France, she was the 11th overall-ranked player by ESPN’s Hoopgurlz in her class and was the second-ranked off guard. After spending her freshman season at Syracuse she transferred to the Gophers and will be eligible next season.
• Alexia Smith, a point guard from Columbus, Ohio, ranked 46th overall in the 2020 class by Hoopgurlz.
• Erin Hedman, a 6-3 post from New Berlin, Wis., ranked 75th overall and eighth among post players.
• Caroline Strande, a 2,000-point scorer from Racine, Wis.
But that’s in the future. Talking Friday, Whalen wasn’t ready to look past Sunday and the rest of the season ahead.
“We’re going to break through, for sure,” she said.