The game was already pretty much decided when, in the third quarter Saturday at Maryland, Kadi Sissoko got the ball, turned to face the basket. She ripped the ball through, exploded to the hoop and scored on an easy layup.
The Gophers women's basketball team lost big to the Terrapins. The Big Ten's best team, Maryland has a starting lineup that features four players 6-foot or taller. They're all long, lean, the most athletic in the conference.
And Sissoko held her own.
On an otherwise difficult day, she finished with 16 points and had seven rebounds, looking like she belonged with the conference's best.
"There is no question she is physically and athletically as good as anyone in our conference," Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen said. "She can match up. Honestly, as we watch her, it's the tip of the iceberg."
After an up-and-down start to her first season with the Gophers, Sissoko is starting to find her groove. Yes, it took a while. A native of France, she was a top-ten national recruit when she committed to Syracuse. But, after a freshman year that ended early with a knee injury and subsequent surgery, Sissoko transferred to Minnesota. She sat out last season as her knee fully healed. There were huge expectations for her as this season began.
It just took a while for her to start meeting them. There's a reason for this. Her summer offseason workouts were ruined by the COVID-19 pandemic, which basically kept her cooped up in her Paris home all summer. The Gophers late-summer workouts and much of November were shelved because of the pandemic. By the time the Gophers finally got started, Sissoko had more than two years away from competition to come back from.
"Mentally, it was really hard," said Sissoko of her quarantine over the summer. "It was hard to be stuck at home, not being able to do anything. It was hard not to be able to get better every day."
Sissoko opened the season with 24 points against Eastern Illinois. She was in double figures in her first four games. Then came a stretch uneven play often marred by a good number of turnovers.
But, lately, that has improved. Whalen decided to have Sissoko, who had been moving between the two forward positions, focus on power forward. And Sissoko, who works as hard after practice as anyone, decided to simplify her game.
"Playing the four, I learned to embrace it," she said. "And I've really tried to focus on finishing, just doing simple stuff. Every time I overdo things, it's not working well."
In her past eight games, she has averaged 14.1 points and 6.5 rebounds and shot nearly 49%. In the past two games at Rutgers and Maryland — two of the best pressing teams in the conference — she had only three turnovers.
And it's going to get better. With a full summer to work out, a full fall with the team, Sissoko will have time to develop her skills. There is still a part of her that wants to play more small forward. In the future, her versatility will be key. At 6-2 she'll be bigger than most threes. At the four, she will usually have the edge in quickness.
For now, it's the four. And, with point guard Jasmine Powell perhaps out with a sprained ankle, Sissoko will have to do more, starting Wednesday with a game against Nebraska.
"I'll have to score," she said. "But also be a good leader, making sure my teammates are confident.''