With about six minutes left in the third quarter Monday at Penn State, Gophers women's basketball coach Lindsay Whalen called timeout. Up two at the half, the Gophers had come out flat in the third and lost the lead quickly. Whalen, upset, used part of the timeout to get in point guard Jasmine Powell's face.
But then with 6:38 left in the game, and the Gophers in the midst of a rally after trailing by 10, Powell came down with the ball and sensed an open shot could be found in the corner. She called the play "Gopher." Moments later Powell passed the ball to Sara Scalia, who hit her second three-pointer in less than two minutes and the Gophers were on an 8-0 run. Timeout was called. And, as Powell made her way to the bench, Whalen went up and hugged her.
Moments later, Powell hit a long three from in front of the Gophers' bench. Minnesota, on an 11-0 run, won going away, thanks to a 32-16 fourth quarter in which Powell scored nine points, grabbed three rebounds and dished three assists.
This tells us two things: Playing point guard for Whalen is the best job in the world. And: Playing point guard for Whalen is the hardest job ever.
"Yes," Powell said. "One hundred percent. She was a great point guard. She was obviously a successful point guard. She knows what it's supposed to look like, what it's not supposed to look like. She's hard on me because Cheryl Reeve was hard on her."
The sophomore guard has it right. When Whalen and Reeve were winning four WNBA titles with the Lynx, the relationship between player and head coach — both point guards — was tight. But it could also be difficult.
"Some days the heat was pretty intense," Whalen said. "But I always knew she was trying to get the best out of me. But let me tell you, I took my share [from Reeve]."
Now she's paying it forward. When Whalen took the Gophers job in 2018 she inherited some depth at the position in Kenisha Bell and, for two years, Jasmine Brunson. But Powell — who along with Scalia were among the first players to commit to Whalen — is Whalen's first true point guard project.
Like Reeve, Whalen wants her point guard to be the team's leader. Whalen goes to Powell to get the temperature of the team.
"Point guards are the coaches on the floor," Whalen said. "I'm sure there are times that the expectations and accountability is intense. But I see so much potential in her. And she can take it. I've seen it time and time again. She responds. This is a tough kid who is not afraid of the moment."
But it's been an adjustment. Powell said she's never felt that kind of pressure, of responsibility, before. Not even while scoring in double figures in 13 of her final 14 games last season, not after she was moved into the lineup midseason. She was a freshman, with Brunson there to carry the load. Not now.
"It's hard," Powell said. "But [Whalen] is not only hard on me, she's my biggest fan. She's a hard coach, but she's there for you. That is what has propelled our relationship together. We're here to win. I would put it this way: It's very hard to listen to sometimes, but she won't tell you anything that's not true. Truth can be brutal at times."
After averaging 12.1 points, 3.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds last season, Powell was a consensus member of the All-Big Ten freshman team. Through 11 games this season, she is 14th in the Big Ten in scoring (17.0), second in assists (6.1), third in three-point shooting percentage (.366) and fourth in threes made per game (2.7).
But, like the team as a whole, there were ups and downs early. Injuries and COVID-19 forced the Gophers to start the season with just seven available players, and they didn't have their full complement until recently.
Powell says she was trying to do too much early, with so many regulars not available. The result: She was scoring, but she was also making mistakes. Through the first four games, she had 28 assists and 27 turnovers. Since then she basically has had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The team has played better, too. The Gophers take a two-game winning streak into Thursday's game with Purdue at Williams Arena.
"I think I've let the game come to me," Powell said. "[Whalen]gave me some great advice: It's not always going to be my night. Sometimes it's someone else's big night."
There are similarities between Powell and Whalen. Both have a dry sense of humor. For both, as players, aggressive is the default setting.
"It's cool, it's unique," Whalen said of Powell. "She and Sara are the first guards who said, 'Yeah, I trust you, this is where I want to come.'"
And it's up to Whalen to make sure her point guard is the best she can be. Even if that means giving her a piece of her mind in one quarter, a hug the next.
"There was some tension," Whalen said of Monday. "But we have a year and a half of trust now. We'll get through this together."
Said Powell: "No matter how hard it gets, in those huddles, those conversations, she always holds me to a higher standard than anyone else. I have to be up to that challenge."