With the game well in hand and the clock winding down, it was time for curtain calls at Williams Arena.
It was Senior Day for the Gophers women’s basketball team. All four were on the floor late, with Michigan State well in the rear view mirror, when first-year coach Lindsay Whalen started subbing out the four, one at a time, so each could get an ovation from the announced 7,707 fans.
Irene Garrido Perez came out with 1 minute, 40 seconds left. Palma Kaposi at 1:02, Annalese Lamke at 0:38. Finally, with 21 seconds left, Kenisha Bell as the fans roared for the Bloomington Kennedy graduate who spent the final three seasons of her college career with the Gophers.
There was a lot to cheer for Sunday in an 82-63 victory over the Spartans to end the regular season.
The Gophers (20-9) broke a two-game losing streak and reached 20 victories for the 14th time in program history. They evened their Big Ten record at 9-9, having responded to a 2-7 start to conference play by going 7-2 in the second half. The seventh seed in this week’s conference tournament in Indianapolis, the Gophers play Indiana on Thursday, with the winner facing second-seeded Iowa Friday.
And, on a day that’s always poignant, the Gophers sent their seniors out the right way.
“I didn’t think I’d be that emotional,” said Bell, who finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “To think it’s my last game at home? I don’t know. My team had my back, trusted me throughout this whole time. Treated me like family once I came here. They’re like my second family. I wish I could stay longer, but I know that’s not how it works.”
Whalen started all four seniors Sunday — both Lamke and Kaposi normally come off the bench.
And, after a relatively slow start, it was all Minnesota. With the score tied 14-14 after one quarter, the Gophers outscored the Spartans 17-6 in the second to take an 11-point halftime lead. They never led by fewer than nine points the rest of the way.
Destiny Pitts continued her roll, scoring 26 points — her sixth consecutive game with 21 or more points. The Gophers made 31 of 32 free throws, with Bell and Pitts each going 10-for-10.
Jasmine Brunson had 13 points. Taiye Bello had 10 points and 10 rebounds, her 11th double-double of the season.
Perhaps more impressive was the Gophers defense, holding the Spartans (19-10, 9-9) — who beat the Gophers by 18 in East Lansing two months ago — to 35.7 percent shooting and to 5-for-18 on three-pointers. Nia Clouden scored 18 for the Spartans, and Shay Colley had 10.
“This gives us some really good momentum,” Whalen said. “And where we’ve come. From 2-7 to finish .500 in the conference, I told them, is a testament to their hard work. And how strong of a team we have. It would have been easy to fold up the tent and not work. But that’s not this group. Here we are with a 20-win season and .500 in the conference. It’s a real testament to all of their effort and them believing in themselves and in each other.”
Afterward, Pitts, a sophomore, talked about the impact Bell has had on her — the energy she brings and how her confidence is contagious. And Pitts pledged to do what she could to make sure they would play some more together.
“For sure,” she said. “We’re going into [the conference tournament] with a lot of confidence. We’ll take it one game at a time. But we’ll play with desperation. Any game could be our last. We’re going to do it for the team.”