EUGENE, Ore. – In the middle of postgame interviews about Sunday’s humbling, season-ending 101-73 loss to Oregon, freshman Destiny Pitts made sure to acknowledge what senior Carlie Wagner meant to her.
“I just want to thank the seniors, especially Carlie,” Pitts said. “She’s taught me a lot on and off the court. It’s kind of sad that I won’t get to play with her anymore, but I’ve had a great time with her.”
Wagner looked at Pitts sitting to the left and smiled when her young teammate reflected on what she learned from a season that moved the program forward with 24 wins and the first NCAA tournament victory since 2009.
“I just learned from the first game that you just have to keep fighting,” Pitts said. “That being in the tournament and this next game just shows the freshmen who are coming in next year that when you come here you have to compete and play every moment.”
Pitts, the Big Ten freshman of the year, and all but three seniors will be back next season motivated to return to the Big Dance and make a deeper run.
Playing Oregon and Green Bay in Eugene gave All-Big Ten junior guard Kenisha Bell the confidence that she could play well on the biggest stage.
Bell, who led the team in points (20.0), assists (6.6) and steals (2.6), had one of the top seasons in school history. She wants to prove she and the Gophers can get to the level of the Ducks and All-America guard Sabrina Ionescu, who had 29 points and nine assists Sunday in leading ad her team to a second straight Sweet 16.
“It just makes you have a chip on your shoulder,” Bell said. “We have a chance to come back. We will come back. It feels good to be around other teams that worked really hard to get to this spot. Playing against them is fun. This is what we play for and practice for. We just have to come back next season and have the same mentality.”
The Gophers lose Wagner and posts Jessie Edwards and Bryanna Fernstrom. Wagner finished her career third on the U’s all-time scoring list.
But Bell, Pitts and sophomore Gadiva Hubbard are three starting guards who averaged double figures in scoring and are expected to return for Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings.
Key reserves Taiye Bello and Jasmine Brunson had valuable experience in the postseason. Stollings also welcomes a four-player recruiting class next season with three-star prospects Delaynie Byrne (Ralston Valley H.S., Colo.), Lesila Finau (Dublin H.S., Calif.) and Jaidah Stewart (Webster Groves H.S., Mo.).
“One of the things we just talked about in the locker room is that this group set out back in June to do something special and to take the program another step that hadn’t been done in a while,” Stollings said. “They followed through, and they achieved that goal. I told them it’s OK to be greedy. You don’t want to be happy just being there, you want more.
“It was a very sad locker room and for a good reason. It hurts, it stings, but I told them that’s OK because they’re really vested to continue to progress the program and be able to be in a game like this.”