Less than 1½ minutes remained in the game and the crowd at Williams Arena was pensive.
For a reason.
The Gophers women’s basketball team has been in just about every Big Ten game this season, and many have gone down to the wire, with the Gophers coming up just short. On Thursday the Gophers led Nebraska by three when Jasmine Brunson drove down the left side of the lane, drew a second defender, and then a third. She jumped and, using her left hand, got the ball to Jasmine Powell on the right side.
Without hesitation, Powell let go with a three-pointer, keeping her shooting hand aloft for a second or two after the ball swished through the net with 1:17 left, the crowd roaring as the Gophers went on to win.
“That was when we broke ’em,’’ coach Lindsay Whalen said. “That was a huge play.’’
For a number of reasons.
First, it clinched the win, one that the Gophers (13-8, 3-7 Big Ten) badly needed. Second, it was Brunson, the senior member of this two-Jasmine backcourt, passing the ball to Powell, a freshman. It spoke of a trust that Powell, in her second game as a starter, has earned through hours of practice and performances in games.
“I’ve seen it before,’’ Brunson said of Powell. “I see it in practice, the work she puts in when nobody is around. I have confidence in her.’’
Down three in the fourth quarter, the Gophers ended the game on a 13-4 run.
Powell scored seven points in that stretch: A drive with 4:01 left put the Gophers up a point; two free throws with 1:59 left put them up five; and then — after Nebraska had scored — that game-clinching three-pointer. Powell finished with 19 points, leading the team for a second straight game.
Filling Pitts’ shoes
Powell and Sara Scalia are both freshmen and — since Powell moved into the starting lineup two games ago — 40% of Whalen’s starting lineup.
Scalia is averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds. Powell is averaging 9.7 points and 2.9 assists. Together, Scalia (six) and Powell (three) have led the team lead in scoring or tied for top honors nine times. Scalia has been conference freshman of the week twice.
Since Destiny Pitts left the program, Scalia and Powell have led the team in scoring in five of six games.
This is still a team trying to get back to relevance in the Big Ten. But the success of the two freshmen bodes well for the future.
“Those guys, they can play,’’ Whalen said. “We have other freshmen as well in here all the time working on their game. Developing. But those two have stepped up in a way that not all freshmen are able to do. We’ve put ’em in big spots from the start, and they’ve responded. They can have really special careers here.’’
Pitts’ decision to transfer hit Powell particularly hard. The two were high school teammates at Detroit Country Day School and have been friends for years.
“It’s something that I’m still working through,’’ said Powell, who was ranked 76th in the nation in her recruiting class. “Obviously I was sad when she left. She was definitely a big part of the reason I came here. She’s always told me to keep going. She wants success for us and the team.’’
Powell began the season as Brunson’s primary backup at the point. As the season went on she got more minutes with Brunson on the court. Eventually Whalen decided to start them both. She felt having two quick ball-handlers could space the floor and encourage ball movement and a quicker pace.
In the fourth quarter against Nebraska, Powell and Brunson combined to go 5-for-9 from the field and hit all four free throws. Powell had nine of her team’s 20 points.
Most importantly, Powell came up big in the game’s biggest point.
“It’s something that somebody just has,’’ Whalen said. “She’s ready for every moment, for everything that comes at her.’’
Powell said she knew she belonged at this level when she scored a team-high 19 points in the second game of the season, a victory over Vermont. And while the jump in competition was eye-opening once the conference season started, she has gotten only better.
Powell is sixth among conference freshmen in scoring (9.7), third in assists (2.9) and tied with Scalia in steals (1.5). Scalia is first among freshmen in three-pointers made per game (1.9) and second in scoring (11.3).
“Especially since Destiny left we had to step up a little more,’’ Scalia said. “I think we kind of build off each other, try to get through it together.’’
Said Powell: “You can’t come in here and be discouraged. You have to have confidence in yourself.”