As is often the case, Kenisha Bell will walk onto the floor at Williams Arena on Sunday afternoon stunned that her college career is almost over.
“I feel like I just started,’’ Bell said. “I honestly cannot believe it.’’
The Gophers women’s basketball team will play Michigan State in its regular-season finale, the last home game for seniors Bell, Annalese Lamke, Irene Garrido Perez and Palma Kaposi.
A win would give the Gophers (19-9, 8-9 Big Ten) their 14th 20-win season. At its most basic, though, it would be a nice memory for four players with very different stories.
“Like I told them, they didn’t have to trust in me coming in here,’’ first-year coach Lindsay Whalen said. “They didn’t have to stick through it, but they did. They all did.’’
Whalen said she will remember Kaposi’s endless enthusiasm, Garrido Perez’s consistent approach, Lamke’s work ethic, Bell’s heart.
“I’ve been enjoying this season the most,’’ Lamke said. “That’s what I’ll always remember, how much I enjoyed this season.’’
Lamke, from Galesville Wis., played a good bit as a freshman but hardly at all the following two seasons. There were times she seriously considered transferring. Just before Whalen was named coach, she was all but certain she would be leaving Minnesota. When Whalen was hired, she decided to stay.
She has been rewarded with her most prolific season. She began the season as a starter but has been coming off the bench since Whalen went to a smaller lineup.
Perez, a native of Spain and a transfer about to finish her second season with the Gophers, was playing very little before Whalen went with a small lineup. As a starter, she has added a three-point threat and strong defense.
Kaposi, from Hungary, has appeared in 62 career games, starting three.
Of the four, Bell has had the biggest role and the highest expectations.
“This is my last conference game,’’ she said. “It would be fun to go out with a win.’’
Bell moved to the Twin Cities with her mom before her high school career at Bloomington Kennedy. She had an impressive freshman season at Marquette before her desire to be closer to her mom prompted a transfer to the Gophers.
After sitting out a year, she had the responsibility of filling Rachel Benham’s shoes. This season, with Carlie Wagner graduated and Gadiva Hubbard hurt, working in a new system and being asked to play both guard spots has been a challenge.
And while Bell, like the team, has had ups and downs, she is still the most important player on the team. Entering the weekend, she was third in the Big Ten in scoring (18.8), tied for ninth in assists (4.3) and third in steals (2.1). She’s also a semifinalist for the Naismith women’s defensive player of the year award.
“Defensively she has taken a big step, which has been great in the new system,’’ Whalen said. “She’s had a different system, different players. She’s played more two, because with Gadiva out we had Jasmine [Brunson] stepping to the forefront. It’s been different, but she’s had a great year. I think she’s learned a ton.’’
A pro career is something Bell has always wanted. Athletically, she has the tools. Her speed is elite; Whalen said her end-to-end speed, with the ball in her hand, is as impressive as any player she’s been around, evoking former Lynx teammate Danielle Robinson.
“I think I’ve shown people I’m super competitive,’’ Bell said. “I want to win. I feel if you love the game it will show. I think it’s been showing the whole year.’’
To make it at the next level — and Bell will almost certainly be in a WNBA camp this spring — she will have to show she can become a better shooter, especially from three-point range, and be more efficient on offense.
But, right now, she and her fellow seniors have a game to win, another memory to make. Bell has never regretted her decision to leave Marquette; the support from fans helped cement in her a feeling like Minnesota is home.
Like most games, Bell will have 20-something family and friends at Sunday’s game. Lamke will have upward of 10.
“Everyone here is so supportive,’’ Bell said. “I’m going to miss it.’’