Lindsay Whalen hopes her players can remember how they felt eight days ago, following a 10-point victory over Nebraska. The Gophers coach prepared her team by emphasizing high-intensity defense, then watched it demonstrate how well it absorbed the lessons.
"The smiles I saw in the locker room were as bright as I've seen," Whalen said Thursday. "We executed what we worked on. And then, the next two days, it just …"
She finished her sentence with a frustrated sigh. Since that sturdy defensive effort on Feb. 24, positive COVID-19 tests in the program forced the Gophers to cancel one game, suspend practices and worry about what happens next. They got the green light to play Friday at Illinois, but only eight players are expected to be in uniform for the regular-season finale.
Whalen said the Nebraska game was perhaps the Gophers' best this season. It was the kind of performance that can propel a team, but the latest COVID-19 disruption has made it feel like it happened two months ago. Knowing that team defense will be critical Friday and beyond, she is doing her best to reinforce their memories.
"That's been our focus, defensive intensity," Whalen said. "We haven't been able to work on it since that game, but that's how we close that gap [with top Big Ten teams].
"Like I told the team, I know we can score. But if we're not going to guard at a high enough level, then we can score all we want, and we're not going to win. Now that we're able to be back in the gym together, that's our focus looking forward through the rest of the season."
Whalen said some players will miss Friday's game for COVID-related reasons but declined to identify them. Guard Jasmine Powell, who aggravated an ankle injury in a Feb. 20 loss at Maryland, is not expected to play at Illinois.