The Gophers remained perfect Sunday at Williams Arena thanks to a defense that remains stifling and rebounding that is still dominant and despite an offense that continues, at times, to sputter.
And first-year coach Lindsay Whalen will take it.
“We win again when we’re shooting in the 30s,” Whalen said after her 20th-ranked women’s basketball team beat Air Force 67-50 to improve to 7-0. “We need to get rhythm in our shooting. But things are correctable. But we’ll take it after a win.”
One constant from the start of the season has been the defense, which held an opponent to 50 points or fewer for the fifth time and is allowing 50.4 points per game. Air Force (4-4) shot 29.5 percent (18-for-61), and the Gophers turned the Falcons’ 20 turnovers into 23 points and outrebounded them 54-38, with junior forward Taiye Bello grabbing 18.
The Gophers are tied with Connecticut for 11th in the nation in fewest points allowed.
And, for the second consecutive game, the Gophers finished strong. In Thursday’s 72-68 victory over No. 12 Syracuse, they used a 12-0 run late after falling behind the Orange by six. On Sunday, they crushed Air Force with a 25-4 run after the Falcons opened the fourth quarter by scoring seven consecutive points to pull within 42-39 with 7:55 left.
“We don’t give up,” said Gophers senior guard Kenisha Bell, who led all scorers with 27 points. “We’ve been in situations where we’ve had a lot of ups and downs. But it shows how we’ve grown, how we don’t give up on a game.”
Sophomore guard Destiny Pitts scored 16 points. Air Force was led by sophomore guard Kaelin Immel’s 16 points.
But it was the Gophers’ finish that stuck with Whalen. After making only 15 of 46 shots through three quarters, the Gophers were 8-for-13 in the fourth, including Pitts’ three-pointer, the Gophers’ only trey of the game. After being slowed by the Falcons’ physical play, the Gophers shook things loose late.
“The last two games, we’ve responded,” Whalen said. “No game will ever go perfect. You’ll face adversity every night. There is always going to be some time when the game is [on the line]. To be able to make those plays, turn the tide in our favor, it’s good. It’s encouraging. It’s nice that, when push comes to shove, we’re able to make plays.”
Still, there is work to do going forward.
After seven games, the Gophers are shooting just over 41 percent overall and 26.7 percent on three-pointers.
Whalen said she liked the shots her team got Sunday but, clearly, more have to go in.
“Either we’re a little short or, as we’re shooting ’em, we’re thinking about it a little too much,” she said. “It’s a rhythm thing. We need to get a lot more shots up in practice. But, honestly, I do like the shots we’re getting. We just need to knock ’em down.”
The Gophers went to the free-throw line 39 times against Air Force but made only 20 of them. Had the Gophers made a few more, this game would have looked like more of a rout than the final score indicated.
As it was, the Gophers responded when needed. The score was tied at 11 after one quarter, but the Gophers held Air Force to 1-for-17 shooting and five points in the second quarter to build a 30-16 halftime lead. After the Falcons pulled close in the fourth, the Gophers put the pedal down.
The bottom line is a victory. As Whalen said, it’s a lot nicer working on things after a win than a loss.
“The will from our veterans again came through,” she said.