Marlene Stollings hadn't been in Minnesota very long when one of her players, former guard Shayne Mullaney, passed along a slogan vital to every Gophers fan.
"Better dead than red," Stollings recalled, citing the motto that sums up the hotblooded rivalry between the Gophers and Wisconsin. "She taught me that very quickly, and she texted it to me this morning to remind me."
This series, Stollings said, is one the Gophers want to dominate — which they did Saturday, in both the short term and the long. They earned their first Big Ten victory of the season with an 88-60 thrashing of the Badgers at Williams Arena, ending a string of three consecutive losses to start the league schedule. The margin was their biggest over Wisconsin in five years, and it extended their win streak over the Badgers to nine games, their longest in the series' history.
Bragging rights were not the only thing on the Gophers' minds. They had a long to-do list after a rough start to Big Ten play: shoring up a faltering defense, reducing turnovers, maintaining their shooting accuracy and getting off to a fast, fierce start.
The Gophers (10-7, 1-3 Big Ten) checked off all those categories against the hapless Badgers (5-11, 0-3). They built a 50-27 halftime lead as Wisconsin shot only 26 percent in the first half, and the margin ballooned to as many as 35 points in the second half. The Gophers shot 45 percent for the game and committed 13 turnovers, their lowest total since a season-opening victory over Harvard.
Carlie Wagner, who led all scorers with 24 points, and Kenisha Bell, who had 17, said the Gophers worked to stay upbeat as they sought their first Big Ten victory. Getting it against the Badgers — and on Stollings' 41st birthday — just made it sweeter.
"We told each other today, 'We need this win,' " said Bell, who also had seven assists. "We've got to get it. So we went out and played our butts off."
They did it in front of a new fan: football coach P.J. Fleck, who attended the game with his wife, Heather, less than 24 hours after the news conference announcing his hiring. The Gophers quickly took advantage of a floundering Wisconsin team before a crowd announced at 4,471.
Against the lowest-scoring team in conference play, the Gophers used an active, assertive defense to build a big first-half lead. They hit five three-pointers in the first quarter, including two during a 10-0 run that gave them an early 22-9 advantage.
They followed that with an 11-3 spurt that stretched the margin to 33-15 at the start of the second quarter. Only one Wisconsin player, freshman Suzanne Gilreath of Brooklyn Park, scored in double figures, tallying 14 points as the Badgers shot only 32 percent for the game.
Wagner and Bell combined to make 18 of 34 shots, with Wagner hitting four of nine from three-point range. The Gophers outscored Wisconsin 40-28 in the paint.
"We were pressuring them and causing turnovers, really doing what we do on defense," Wagner said. "And we took care of the ball a lot better than we have the last couple of games. Really pressuring and getting stops was key."
Stollings called the victory "a big bounce-back game" for her team. A year ago, the Gophers crushed Illinois on Stollings' birthday, leading her to joke that she would gladly have more than one birthday a year if the Gophers keep celebrating it with Big Ten triumphs.
"As long as we play like this," she said, "I'm all in."