When she heard coach Marlene Stollings wanted all of the freshmen to report to her office, Taiye Bello assumed the worst.
“The first thing we thought was, ‘Are we in trouble?’ ’’ the Gophers rookie forward said. “But when she told us we were going to be captains, we were all really surprised.’’
Stollings unveiled a novel experiment that day: naming all four Gophers freshmen as captains for the month of February. It worked so well that she’s extending it into the Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday for the Gophers as they play Penn State in the second round.
Should the Gophers win their tournament opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, they would advance to a quarterfinal matchup Friday against fourth-ranked Maryland. Their fate beyond that is uncertain. They rank 79th in RPI and are not part of the conversation among those predicting the NCAA tournament field, making it likely they will need to win the tournament to secure a bid.
Stollings has seen her freshmen grow more comfortable throughout the season, with Bello and Jasmine Brunson starting the past eight games and Gadiva Hubbard averaging 12 points despite missing eight games because of injury and illness. She pushed them further by giving them a turn as team leaders. They will tackle another new test at the Big Ten tournament, where they hope to perform well enough to earn the Gophers a spot in the Women’s NIT or the Women’s Basketball Invitational, if not the NCAAs.
“We’re really trying to make a statement and have fun,’’ said Brunson, who has played in all 29 games and averages 3.1 points. “It was a little hard to get used to [being a captain], because I didn’t really know where to use my voice. Now I do.
“It’s made me more confident, knowing when I need to speak up and knowing what I need to say to each player. And in the tournament, we’ll need that, just speaking up and giving each other confidence.’’
Making her freshmen temporary captains is a new twist for Stollings. Junior Carlie Wagner remains the permanent captain, but with three rookies playing vital roles, the coach saw an opportunity to fast-track their leadership skills and make them feel more invested in the team.
Brunson, Hubbard and twins Taiye and Kehinde Bello are expected to lead discussion in huddles and maintain a positive, encouraging tone throughout practices and games. At the end of each workout, one of them must choose two players and tell them two things they did well, then choose two others and mention two things they could improve upon. Being leaders also has forced them to think things through in games, Stollings said, rather than being fed information all the time.
Before Stollings went ahead with the idea, she ran it by Wagner and other upperclassmen. They were on board. Their teammates’ support has been invaluable to helping them learn how and when to assert themselves, the freshmen said.
“They encourage us when we’re too quiet, telling us to get the gym going,’’ said Hubbard, who has scored in double digits in 11 of 21 games. “I’ve never been a talkative person, but this is forcing me to talk and communicate and cheer on my teammates. And it’s actually easier than I thought it would be, because our teammates make it easy.’’
While she hoped the stint as captains would prepare the freshmen for bigger roles in the future, Stollings also thought it could pay more immediate dividends. Brunson, Taiye Bello and Hubbard have made 12 starts each. Hubbard is among the top-scoring freshmen in the Big Ten, and the 6-2 Bello — who often plays center, where she is undersized but agile — scored a career-high 19 points in a loss at Penn State last month.
Giving them leadership positions has accelerated their development, Stollings said.
“They’re playing big roles, but they were still afraid to say anything because they’re freshmen,’’ she said. “We wanted to give them a voice and back them up. That’s allowed them to grow and to be accountable.
“We wanted to see how they could handle being in a position like that. It certainly gives us a jump start on the future, now that they know what it’s about and they’re comfortable in that role. It’s just normal for them now.’’
On Thursday, Stollings anticipates she will have to channel the rookies’ excitement and energy in a positive direction as they play their first Big Ten tournament game. After adapting to the demands of leadership, Taiye Bello hopes the group can handle this next step just as adroitly.
“Being a captain has definitely been a challenge, but a good one,’’ she said. “We’ve all learned a lot this season.’’