Marlene Stollings has figured out all the possible scenarios. With her team still in the hunt for a top-four seed in this week’s Big Ten women’s basketball tournament — and the double bye that goes with it — the coach has studied how the final standings could shake out and where the Gophers stand in a complex matrix of tiebreakers.
She’s written all of that up in a document she will carry with her to Iowa City, where the Gophers finish the regular season Sunday against 17th-ranked Iowa. But the only matchup Stollings wants her players to think about is the one that awaits at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The young Gophers still are learning how to handle high-stakes situations, even as they approach a program milestone, and they cannot allow their focus to drift in the most meaningful game of the season thus far.
The Gophers must win Sunday to have a shot at a top-four seed and to tie the program record of 23 regular-season victories. Stollings said Friday that the Gophers will be the No. 4, 5 or 6 seed in the tournament, depending upon the outcome of their game and the results of Sunday games involving Rutgers, Northwestern and Ohio State. The Gophers currently are tied with Rutgers for fifth place in the conference standings.
“March Madness begins Sunday,” Stollings said. “We’re treating [the Iowa game] no different. It’s a great time of year for basketball; we want to reiterate that to them and to have fun. But you’ve got to keep your intensity level very high, because everyone is fighting so hard right now.”
Maryland has secured the Big Ten title and No. 1 seed for the tournament, which begins Wednesday in suburban Chicago. Iowa also has locked up a top-four seed. The four highest-seeded teams advance directly to Friday’s quarterfinals, while the fifth through 10th seeds begin play Thursday.
The Gophers learned a painful lesson Tuesday about what happens when they take their eye off the ball. They lost by 24 points at Nebraska, in a game that could have improved their chances of earning a top-four tournament seed and given them a milestone 23rd victory.
Stollings said the team was tired after a two-overtime win against Michigan three days earlier — a game in which its reserves played only seven minutes and contributed zero points. She canceled practice on Wednesday and Thursday to allow players to recover.
Against Nebraska, Stollings said, the Gophers encountered a playoff-type atmosphere. Their big-game inexperience showed; they failed to counter the Cornhuskers’ adjustments and never found their footing. While senior Shae Kelley said the team’s confidence remains intact, sophomore center Amanda Zahui B. added that the Gophers cannot lose sight of the formula driving their most successful regular season in a decade.
“We need to stay focused and locked in,” said Zahui, who scored only 12 points at Nebraska after totaling 66 in the previous two games. “We’re a young team, and we’re still learning. We just need to focus on us and not as much on the other team, because that’s when we play the greatest.”
Kelley said success has suited her team, with every victory making it eager to aim higher. The Gophers face a serious challenge at Iowa, as they try to beat the Hawkeyes for the second time in 13 days.
Confidence has been essential to their best efforts, and a 93-80 victory over Iowa on Feb. 17 at Williams Arena gave them an ego boost that still lingers. And after getting caught up in the noise and the crowd against Nebraska, Stollings said, her team learned much about maintaining its poise and weathering stretches of poor play.
Kelley said the Gophers are keen to atone for that bad showing. To win Sunday, she said, they must disrupt Iowa’s sharp outside shooting and be ready for the Hawkeyes to double- or triple-team Zahui, who scored a career-high 39 in the February victory. Zahui wants to see the Gophers repeat the superb teamwork and unwavering concentration that lifted them in that game.
Though Stollings has all those tournament seeding scenarios in her pocket, they will stay there until the end of Sunday’s game. The Gophers’ first order of business is taking care of their own, and she doesn’t want anything to interfere with that.
“We’re trying to keep it fun, exciting and a little bit loose,” Stollings said. “They know what’s at stake.”