Kenisha Bell stuck with her opponent’s every move at the top of the key during Wednesday’s first official Gophers women’s basketball practice.
It was like she never left, but things were different.
Bell, the U’s leading scorer and All-Big Ten first team guard last season, was on the scout team. She already graduated and won’t be suiting up in Lindsay Whalen’s second year as Gophers coach.
Whalen appreciates Bell coming back to help the players who hope to follow in her footsteps, because Whalen did the same thing for her alma mater for years.
“She was guarding some of our point guards,” Whalen said. “If you can get by her, you can get by a lot of players.”
Bell helped to lead the Gophers to a 21-11 record in Whalen’s first season, but the expectations are even higher for the team without her. They went to the WNIT last season, but the goal is the NCAA tournament. Whalen will now look to senior Jasmine Brunson in the backcourt and junior Destiny Pitts to become the team’s go-to scorer.
Brunson started 27 games alongside Bell and ranked second on the team with 82 assists in 2018-19. The depth behind her drops off in experience with freshmen Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia, a Stillwater native.
“[Bell] told me at the end of last year, I’m going to have to lead this team at the point guard position,” Brunson said. “Whether it be vocally or through my play, I’m definitely trying to step up into that role. This is Day One of it.”
Pitts is Minnesota’s leading returning scorer with a 16.3 points per game average, but she also led the Gophers with 81 three-pointers last season. Whalen, a former Gophers All-America and Lynx star, can see similarities between Pitts and herself when it comes to making big shots and being an emotional leader on the floor.
“Except she can shoot the ball and I can make layups,” Whalen joked. “Destiny has that shot-making ability. She’s a great weapon for us.”
Whalen said Pitts and Big Ten player of the year Megan Gustafson were the two best players in the conference in the second half of league play last season. Pitts has the potential to be an elite scorer this season, but she knows she has help in replacing Bell’s leadership with Brunson and senior forward Taiye Bello, who led the Big Ten with 11.9 rebounds last season.
“[Bell’s] a great scorer and a great player on the defensive end, so we’re definitely going to miss her,” Pitts said. “But I think it’s just about building off our team last year. It’s good to see Taiye and Jasmine grow into the players they have become, especially with them not getting as much playing time when they first got here. They’ve stepped into that role becoming the leaders that we need on and off the court.”
Two on the mend
Redshirt junior guard Gadiva Hubbard and sophomore guard Mercedes Staples participated in the first practice on a limited basis. Whalen said they will be brought along slowly to be ready for the Nov. 5 opener vs. Missouri State.
Hubbard missed last season after having surgery on her right foot. Staples had offseason ankle surgery after missed six games last season with lingering left ankle issues.
“It’s never fun to be injured during the year or out for the year,” Whalen said. “We want to make sure to do everything we can to make sure they’re feeling good. I think we’re in a good place right now.”