Nobody had to tell Rachel Banham what her team needed from her. The Gophers guard gave that speech to herself at halftime Tuesday, as she and her teammates considered how to dig themselves out of a 16-point hole against Illinois.
“I wasn’t doing anything for anybody,” said Banham, who had only two points on two free throws in the first half as the Gophers trailed 45-29. “I just kept telling myself I had to step up and do what I do.”
The senior has led many a comeback during her time with the Gophers, but rarely has she carried the load as completely as she did in an 82-77 victory at Williams Arena. Banham scored 18 of the Gophers’ 24 points in the fourth quarter — including 10 in a row — to will her team to its biggest rally of the season.
With 3 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game, Banham started her grand finale by hitting a three-pointer to cut Illinois’ lead to 75-73. Another three of hers tied it at 77 with 1:45 left, then 40 seconds later, she struck the final blow with one more three-pointer to put the Gophers ahead 80-77.
Banham, who finished with 27 points, scored as many in the fourth quarter as Illinois. Her performance sent a crowd announced at 2,618 into a frenzy and gave the Gophers (14-6, 6-3 Big Ten) their fourth consecutive victory.
Illinois (8-12, 1-8), which led by as many as 18, lost for the 11th time in 12 games but got an outstanding performance from freshman Alex Wittinger of Delano, who finished with a team-high 27 points and game-high 15 rebounds.
“[Our team] played their guts out, but Banham stepped up and made too many plays down the stretch,” Illinois coach Matt Bollant said. “I’m not sure there’s a better shooter in the country, or a kid that can take over a game any better than she did.”
Banham’s performance diminished the sting of a dismal first half for the Gophers, who were thoroughly outplayed by the last-place team in the Big Ten. The Illini ran up a 29-14 margin on the boards — outrebounding the Gophers 24-8 at one point — and shot 49 percent in the half, including 39 percent from three-point range.
The Gophers’ failure to challenge Illinois defensively carried over to the offensive end as well. They did not score in the first 4:38 of the second quarter, missing eight shots. Banham chided herself for playing “really soft’’ in the half, vowing to do better in the final 20 minutes.
In the third quarter, the Gophers tightened their defense, and Illinois got flustered. The Barn got loud as a 16-3 run to end the quarter pulled the home team within 59-58. And Banham took it from there, making six of 10 shots — including five of six from three-point range — in the fourth quarter.
“She was in the zone. I could see it in her eyes,” Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said. “It was like [Illinois] wasn’t going to stop us at that moment. It was a phenomenal performance.”