The good news, Lindsay Whalen said, was how her team has responded.
Sunday at Williams Arena, Whalen’s Gophers women’s basketball team led Ohio State by seven points with 6:04 left to go but was outscored 15-5 the rest of the way in a 66-63 loss. Since then, the team has rested, spent a lot of time in the film room and had some of its best practices of the season.
“They are fired up,” Whalen said before practice Friday, Minnesota’s last workout before Saturday’s game in Nebraska. “If we could have played yesterday, we would have. “
It is early in the Big Ten season, but already there is a crossroads. Whalen, her staff and everyone who was on last season’s team want to avoid the slump the Gophers experienced at the start of the Big Ten schedule last year, when Minnesota opened conference play with a victory over Wisconsin, then dropped six of its next seven games.
Whalen is determined to avoid a repeat.
“I don’t want to have another January like last year’s,” she said. “That is not what we’re going to do. So that is our focus. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to have a good January. So it’s time to go out and focus, and learn, from the Ohio State game.”
There is work to do. In two games, the Gophers (11-2, 1-1 Big Ten) have played, basically, one really good game. At Penn State in the conference opener, they played their best half in Whalen’s season-plus as coach while building a 54-22 lead, only to be outscored 53-27 in the second half in an 81-74 victory.
Against Ohio State, the Gophers were outscored 32-18 over the first 18 minutes, 20 seconds. Minnesota then went on a 40-19 run over the next 15½ minutes while building that seven-point, fourth-quarter lead, only to stumble down the stretch.
“The last three to four minutes of the game, I had the ball in my hands a lot,” said Destiny Pitts, who scored 26 points but also eight of the Gophers’ 16 turnovers. “I feel I need to make better decisions down the stretch. I watched the film, saw some of the reads I could have made. This game is crucial. We don’t want this to turn into how we started the Big Ten last year.”
To that end, Whalen has stressed a few things in practice this week:
Ball movement: There were too many forced shots and too much dribbling against Ohio State, which ended with the Gophers logging eight assists and 16 turnovers. They averaged nearly 16 assists per game before the OSU game. “We have to have that one more [pass] mentality,” Whalen said. “We need more draw-and-kicks, especially late in the shot clock.”
More three-point shooting: This could come from those draw-and-kicks. The Gophers are first in the Big Ten in three-point shooting (40.2 percent). “Every time we’ve emphasized something, the team does a good job of responding in a game,” Whalen said. “I’m confident about us passing the ball and getting good shots down in Nebraska.”
Poise: Most games will be tight in a conference with eight teams in the top 50 in RPI, according to the NCAA (the Gophers are 51st). To Whalen, poise means sticking to the game plan. Against the taller, physical Buckeyes, the game plan was designed to deny points in the paint. That plan worked until late, with 12 of their final 15 points coming there.
Nebraska is also 11-2 overall, 1-1 in conference. The Cornhuskers lost at Michigan State, in overtime.
“Last year we had a lead there late in the fourth and let it slip away,” Whalen said. “We’re going down there this time for the win.’’