A big week for the Minnesota women's basketball team got off to a great start Monday. The Gophers, winners of 10 in a row, cracked the AP Top 25 — No. 23 — for the first time in nearly nine years, and sophomore center Amanda Zahui B.'s growing list of honors grew by two.
Pretty impressive, especially for a team that lost its best player less than a month ago.
The last time the Gophers were ranked in the top 25 was mid-March 2006. They'll put their No. 23 ranking on the line next against No. 12 Maryland on Sunday at Williams Arena. The Terrapins are coached by Brenda Frese, who in one season (2001-02) in Minnesota guided the Gophers to basketball relevance and the NCAA tournament's second round.
The 14-1 Gophers have won their first three Big Ten games, including Sunday's 72-60 win at Wisconsin, without Rachel Banham, the preseason pick to be Big Ten Player of the Year who tore knee ligaments on Dec. 10. Since then, Zahui has elevated her game to new heights.
"The loss of Rachel was devastating to our team, and our kids are really close to her," first-year coach Marlene Stollings said in Madison, Wis. "I think they've been really inspired and motivated to really perform at a high level for her, and we've challenged each of them with a couple of realistic individual goals."
Already a preseason all-conference pick, Zahui is averaging 15.9 points and 11.5 rebounds a game while making over 57 percent of her shots. On defense, she has a 61 blocks (most in the Big Ten) and 126 defensive rebounds (second-most in conference, by one). She also leads the conference with 11 double-doubles, and she's on an eight-game streak of those. The 6-5 native of Stockholm, Sweden, earned her second consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week honor on Monday, and she was also named ESPN's National Player of the Week. She averaged 17.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and four blocks per game in victories over then-No. 12 Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin last week.
The Gophers pulled out quite a comeback against Nebraska in their Big Ten opener, led by Zahui's had 20 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks and three steals. She followed that performance with 21 points and matched her career-high with 19 rebounds in the Gophers' road win at Purdue. ESPN also named the Gophers its Team of the Week.
"I am thrilled for our team and program to be recognized by the national media with a return to the top 25," Stollings wrote in a statement. "This team has shown resiliency, grit, toughness and character in light of difficulty, and I couldn't be more proud of them at this point in our season."
Maryland (11-2, 2-0) is on a five-game winning streak that includes a 75-47 demolishing of former No. 12 Nebraska, which is now ranked 19th, in its last game. Sunday's game against Frese's Terrapins tips at 2 p.m.