EUGENE, Ore. – Carlie Wagner’s superstitious pregame routine starts with her socks. Then ankle braces, then shoes. Left to right, every time, every game.
“And I have to have my shorts on before I put my jersey on,” she added. “I know it’s weird. It’s just a little ritual that I do. I still do it every game.”
Minnesota’s senior guard hasn’t tweaked anything about that process for the past four years. Almost everything else surrounding Wagner’s basketball career has changed.
Entering Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round game against Green Bay, the 5-10 New Richland native is the only player remaining from the Minnesota team that last played in the Big Dance in 2015, when it lost in the opening round to DePaul.
The crown jewel of a five-player 2014 recruiting class, Wagner was Minnesota’s Miss Basketball after leading New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva to back-to-back state titles. After scoring the second-most points in Minnesota girls’ basketball history, she kept filling it up in college, leading all Gophers freshmen in scoring. But within two years, Wagner was the only player left from her recruiting class.
Among the four departures was her best friend and former AAU teammate Grace Coughlin from Eden Prairie.
Coughlin and Wagner grew tight after a Gophers camp in the eighth grade. They were inseparable, worked out together and even finished each other’s sentences.
“It was cool to have a teammate you were so close with and could bond with and go through everything together as freshmen,” Wagner said. “We were so goofy and had a blast.”
That fun came to an abrupt end, though, just before the Gophers traveled to the NCAA tournament in South Bend, Ind., three years ago.
Coughlin told Wagner before that trip she was leaving the team and transferring (eventually to North Dakota). Coughlin didn’t fit with then first-year coach Marlene Stollings.
Wagner was shaken going into that tournament game, knowing her friend was moving on.
“Freshman year, I felt like the door hit me in the face,” she said. “That definitely was the hardest time. There’s so much being thrown at you — and learning to balance school, life and grow up without your mom and dad always helping you. You feel like you hit a wall sometimes, but it gets better. You just fight through it.”
Coughlin’s basketball career ended before she could play at North Dakota because of chronic knee issues. She came back to Minnesota to finish her degree, and she went from teammate to “Carlie’s biggest fan,” Coughlin said.
“She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in my life,” Coughlin said. “She’s the type of person who always puts her best foot forward, best effort into everything she does. I’m not surprised one bit at the success she’s had at the U. You could’ve asked me that when we first met in high school and I knew she was going to do big things.”
Part of the reason Wagner chose the Gophers over Iowa State was so her friends, family and hometown could be close enough to watch her games. She has younger twin sisters and was able to watch them play in high school as well.
“This is why she stayed home,” said Wagner’s father, Darren. “Anywhere else wouldn’t have worked out. This worked out really good for her because all of the support she has.”
A couple busloads of New Richland fans have made the drive up Interstate 35 about 90 miles to Minneapolis for nearly all of Wagner’s home games the past four years. They took up a section at Williams Arena wearing custom-made, maroon-and-gold “Carlie Wagner” shirts and hats with her signature and No. 33 on them.
“That’s how supportive they are,” she said. “It shows how much they care. I’m very lucky to come from a town like that.”
A storied career
The homegrown girl from a small farming town has shot her way to third place on the U’s all-time scoring list, right behind fellow Minnesotans Rachel Banham and Lindsay Whalen, two Gophers legends with their numbers retired in the rafters.
Wagner set herself apart off the court as well. A double major in business and marketing, she was the first academic All-America for the program in 11 years. She became a three-time All-Big Ten player, all while adjusting her game to playing with three different Gopher stars.
Her freshman year, Wagner complemented All-America center Amanda Zahui B. Her sophomore year she was Banham’s sidekick. The past two years she’s learned to share the backcourt with Kenisha Bell. They both earned All-Big Ten first team honors this season while leading Minnesota to an 11-win, fourth-place conference finish.
With greater emphasis on improving her footwork, shot selection and defense, Wagner has become a more all-around player. It’s improved her pro stock, too. She’s now projected as a WNBA draft pick.
The scoring ability of Bell, Destiny Pitts and Gadiva Hubbard on the perimeter allows Wagner to still be an explosive offensive threat. She was named to the All-Big Ten tournament team after averaging nearly 27 points per game two weeks ago.
The last time the Gophers were in the NCAA tournament, Wagner was a freshman trying to carry a heavy load with Banham out after a season-ending knee injury. This time, her experience is what Stollings will lean on the most.
“She knows what it’s about,” Stollings said. “She was very involved that year during that NCAA tournament. We counted on her heavily. I think that she’s going to be able to share that experience.”
When she pulls her socks over her braces and laces up her gold Nikes in the locker room Friday, from left to right, Wagner will be reminded of her freshman year in the NCAA tournament.
“It was fun and exciting but a little intimidating at that time,” she said. “I remember my heart racing before the game. A lot has changed since then for me. I’ll know more what to expect.”