Once she allowed herself to think about breaking her program’s most significant record, Rachel Banham began to envision the ideal scenario. The shot that would make her the leading scorer in Gophers women’s basketball history would slip through the net at Williams Arena, under the banners of the stars who preceded her, with a frenzied crowd on its feet. Her grand moment unfolded instead in a nearly empty gym 2,400 miles from home. Only 110 people were scattered around Mario Morales Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when Banham popped in a long three-pointer from the top of the key in a loss to Auburn two days after Thanksgiving. “It was a lot different, because we were away,” said Banham, who scored 29 in that game to surpass Lindsay Whalen’s career record of 2,285 points. “But it was still really cool.”
Saturday, she will get that home-court ovation she hoped for when the Gophers celebrate Banham’s milestone before their game against Memphis. The fifth-year senior guard now has 2,349 career points with 22 games remaining in the regular season. While coach Marlene Stollings suggested she could push her total to an untouchable “Joe DiMaggio-type record” before she is done, Banham is anxious to move past the incessant chatter about the scoring mark.
She acknowledged it would be “awesome” to reach 3,000 career points. But that isn’t why she spent seven brutal months recovering from torn knee ligaments that ended her 2014-15 season after 10 games, or why she dedicated herself to improving her diet and fitness over the summer.
“I had a lot of unfinished business,” said Banham, whose team-high 24.3 points per game is the best average of her career. “I have huge team goals I want to accomplish, like playing in the NCAA tournament, and I wanted to become a better player and leader. It was a huge motivation to finish on the court, in my jersey, and not on the sidelines.”
That kind of attitude and drive has endeared her to Whalen, who quickly sent a congratulatory text after her 2004 record fell.
“To have it broken by Rachel is great,” said Whalen, who will be part of Saturday’s ceremony. “You want it to be someone who’s earned it, and she definitely has. Now it’s hers. And I’m really happy for her.”
Quite a comeback
Banham was 107 points shy of the record when she collapsed at the end of a fast-break layup on Dec. 10, 2014, in Grand Forks, N.D. She had torn her ACL and suffered a partial tear of her MCL, forcing her to spend the next three months watching from the bench as the Gophers returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
That gave her plenty of incentive for a rehabilitation period she described as the hardest thing she ever has done. Her doctors followed a strict, cautious timetable, prohibiting her from jogging until three months post-surgery and forbidding any basketball activities for seven months. As she healed, she worked with the Gophers’ new strength coach, Ralph Petrella, and began reshaping her diet.
Banham said she wanted to be in the best possible shape for her final college season, so she gave up soda and strictly limited candy — a big sacrifice — and fast food. Now 14 pounds lighter, Banham feels stronger and more fit and is moving among four different positions, depending on her team’s needs.
Stollings wondered whether Banham would be hesitant in her first games back, but she finished with 22 points in the season opener against Wofford and has scored at least 20 in each of the Gophers’ seven games.
“She’s one of the strongest people I know,” teammate Mikayla Bailey said. “It was heartbreaking for all of us when she went down. To see her come back and have such a great start, it’s awesome.”
Blood, sweat, tears
Banham has been making Gophers history since her junior season, when her 750 points and 93 three-pointers broke single-season records. Though she insists the career scoring record was not foremost in her mind, Banham admits it is deeply meaningful to her.
She set her sights on it after her freshman season, when she set a Gophers rookie record with 580 points, and it became a frequent topic of conversation when she hit the 1,000-point mark as a sophomore in her 57th career game. Between bursts of prolific scoring, she has persevered, through a blood clot in a lung the summer before her junior year and the knee injury a year ago.
Shortly after her surgery, Banham announced she would return for a fifth year rather than enter last summer’s WNBA draft, maintaining a commitment that dates to her days as a heavily recruited high school player who only wanted to be a Gopher.
“She’s worked so hard and been through so much, she deserves [the record],” said Pam Borton, who recruited Banham and coached her first three Gophers seasons. “She’s put as much blood, sweat and tears into this program as anyone.
“Her sole focus for the first two years was, ‘What do I need to do to help the team win, to make the program better?’ She never talked about the record, which is one of the great things about her.”
That made an impression on Whalen, too. Since her graduation, the Lynx guard has maintained ties with the program and occasionally has practiced with the Gophers. When Banham was a sophomore, Whalen said, she realized the record was in jeopardy.
The two never have discussed the scoring mark. But Whalen has offered advice throughout Banham’s college career, and they stay in touch via text messages. This fall, Whalen tracked Banham’s progress toward the record via social media, and she felt no melancholy when it fell.
“You could see she was a great player, so I wanted to be around, to see her grow,” Whalen said. “I knew the record would be broken some day. It’s very cool that I know her, and it’s fun to be part of it and celebrate her accomplishment.”
As she approached the record, Banham said it was the only thing people wanted to talk about. Even her teammates got into the act, trying to predict how many games it would take her to reach it. The night she broke it, they kept a running tally, reminding her of her total each time she scored.
Stollings understood the fascination. “It’s not often you get to see someone break a record of such magnitude in your lifetime,” said the coach, who is the leading scorer in Ohio high school basketball history. “This might stand for countless years, or maybe even forever. It’s monumental.”
During her pursuit of Whalen’s record, Banham occasionally felt some pressure. She liked it, she said, because it meant people expected great things from her.
Grateful to have the record in her pocket, Banham has moved on to the business of seeking other great things, including an NCAA bid and a WNBA career. If all goes according to plan, Saturday’s ceremony will not be the last time she is honored on the Williams Arena floor.
“I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet, and it might not for a couple of years,” she said. “It still feels really surreal. Being able to say I’m up there with [Whalen] is one of the coolest things I’ll ever be able to say.
“Ten years down the road, it’s really going to hit me, I think. That will be sweet, to look up in the stands and see my picture hanging there.”