For much of this season, coaching the Gophers has made Marlene Stollings feel as if she’s been playing a game of whac-a-mole. “You fix one thing,’’ she said, “and something else pops up.’’
One of their most persistent problems has been maintaining a high level of play for an entire game. They didn’t solve that one Monday, but they endured a third-quarter collapse to defeat Northwestern 71-61 at Williams Arena. Though the game had some unsightly moments — another theme for the Gophers this season — it represented a step forward for a team struggling to find its way in the post-Rachel Banham era.
The Gophers (14-12, 5-8) won consecutive Big Ten games for the first time this season, two days after a 34-point victory over Rutgers. It also marked the first time this season they defeated a team in the upper half of the league standings.
Stollings viewed the game as “huge progress’’ for the Gophers. She liked the play of freshmen Jasmine Brunson, Taiye Bello and Gadiva Hubbard, who are taking on greater roles, and the poise the Gophers showed in pushing back after a 12-point halftime lead became a two-point deficit at the end of the third quarter. The mission now, with three regular-season games remaining, is to keep pushing forward.
“This is part of our growth,’’ said Stollings, who has seen the Gophers wilt repeatedly this season when an opponent makes a run. “We had to lose a few games before we got to this point. This is really the first time all year we’ve responded this way in the third or fourth quarter.
“We’re in a great place. We’re peaking at just the right time, and there’s a lot of confidence with this team.’’
The Gophers have slid down the RPI rankings, sitting at No. 62 before Monday’s game. They have not defeated a ranked opponent this season and are 5-8 in their past 13 games.
At various points, the Gophers have been troubled by turnovers, cold shooting or a lack of ferocity on the boards. Defense has been their most consistent issue; they are allowing 73.8 points per game, ranking 330th among 345 Division I teams in scoring defense. The lackluster season has caused some grumbling among longtime supporters of the program, and attendance has fallen to an average of 3,198 fans this season, about 650 per game fewer than they drew during Stollings’ first season in 2014-15.
Stollings said she did not set a victory total goal for the season, because she was uncertain how long it would take to integrate eight new players. She expected the Gophers to have a minuscule margin for error but felt confident she would see improvement, particularly from a solid freshman class. After using 14 different starting combinations, she has settled on a lineup over the past four games that includes Bello and Brunson.
“I knew it was going to be tough,’’ Stollings said. “What they’re learning is just how hard you have to work, and how you have to sustain that through the entire duration of the game to actually win in the Big Ten. We’ve taken some knocks. But it’s part of their growth and maturation process to understand that piece, and I think they’re grasping it.’’
Monday, the Gophers played aggressive defense early in the game and built a 34-22 halftime lead. The Wildcats — paced by Hopkins’ Nia Coffey, who scored a game-high 33 points — dominated the third quarter. A 13-1 run tied the score at 35, and Northwestern held a 48-46 lead after three quarters.
The Gophers made 14 of 20 free throws in the fourth quarter, and a reinvigorated defense slowed the Wildcats. Carlie Wagner, who led the Gophers with 25 points, said she saw “a lot of fight’’ in her teammates, which she considered a breakthrough for a team that hopes to finish strong.
“We’re seeing a lot of good things happening,’’ she said. “I feel like we’re in a good place right now to make a good run.’’