It was less than three weeks ago that the Gophers women’s basketball team hit its lowest point.
The team was already without Destiny Pitts, who had announced her intention to transfer. The team had just lost, at home, by 10 points to a Wisconsin team that entered the game having lost seven of eight games.
The Gophers were 2-6 in Big Ten play. Coach Lindsay Whalen looked at the final month and a half of the season and thought maybe the best Minnesota could hope for was to be a spoiler for another team.
At least for now, things have changed.
After that Wisconsin game the Gophers went to Indiana and lost to a very good Hoosiers team, but played well. Three days later they beat Nebraska at Williams Arena. Three days after that they rode forward Taiye Bello’s big game to a two-overtime victory over Rutgers. Thursday in Madison, the Gophers avenged that Jan. 22 loss to the Badgers with a 73-64 win — without senior point guard Jasmine Brunson.
So a season that seemed lost now holds an opportunity.
“We’re still in it,” Whalen said Sunday before the team’s final practice ahead of Monday’s game with Michigan at Williams Arena. “We need to embrace the fact that we’ve put ourselves in position to be in a game like this on our home court. With, honestly, the NCAA tournament still right there.”
Well, it’s no longer out of the picture.
The Gophers (15-8 overall) have won three straight conference games. After the victory at Wisconsin, Minnesota is 50th in the RPI rankings. Part of that is due to a tougher nonconference schedule.
Last year the Gophers were a 20-win team that had no chance of making the NCAA tournament because of their strength of schedule — they ended the season 144th in that category. This year, so far, the Gophers (44th in strength of schedule) have played five games against Big Ten teams with RPIs in the top 30, along with nonconference games against Missouri State (currently fifth) and Arizona State (29th).
The Gophers opened the season with a loss to Missouri State, but had a convincing win over ASU, which has beaten Oregon and Oregon State this season.
So there is an opportunity.
“We try not to think too far ahead,” freshman point guard Jasmine Powell said. “But we’re doing everything for a reason. We’re winning games. We’re thinking about the future, but we’re staying in the present.”
It won’t be easy. Brunson — who took an elbow to the head in the Rutgers game — is doubtful for Monday’s game. Freshman guard Sara Scalia hurt her right ankle/foot late in the Wisconsin game and is day-to-day but also could miss the game.
Against Wisconsin Whalen went with a bigger starting lineup that included Taiye Bellos’s sister, Kehinde Bello, who responded with a career-high 12 rebounds. Against a big, physical Michigan team, Whalen will likely have to do the same.
But a formula the Gophers have used to win in recent games will have to continue: strong defense, better play in the post and the continued ascendancy of Powell, who has put herself in the conversation for Big Ten freshman of the year.
The Gophers are 10-0 when holding opponents under 40% shooting. In the conference Minnesota is 4-0 when doing so, 1-7 when it doesn’t. The Gophers held Rutgers to 35.2% shooting, Wisconsin to 36.2%.
After the Wisconsin loss, Whalen said she was hard on her post players. Since then? Taiye Bello has three double-doubles, including a 19-point, 22-rebound performance against Rutgers.
Inserted into the starting lineup four games ago, Powell has averaged 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds. 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals as the Gophers have gone 4-0.
If the Gophers are without both Brunson and Scalia on Monday, another player will have to step up, like Masha Adashchyk did in Wisconsin when she scored a career-high 16 points.
“Our focus is dialed in now,” junior Gadiva Hubbard said. “I think we have a good game plan, a good chance [against Michigan]. I think it will be a good one.”