Be careful what you wish for.
One of Lindsay Whalen’s goals entering her second season as Gophers women’s basketball coach was to beef up her team’s nonconference schedule. Stronger tests for her team, better preparation for the Big Ten schedule.
But in Tuesday’s season opening 77-69 loss to Missouri State, that came at a cost.
The Lady Bears return four starters and eight other players from a team that reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 last spring. Tuesday the visitors were the ones who were in control, leading from start to finish. It was the 23rd-ranked Gophers who looked jittery, anxious as the game began.
The Gophers’ first eight possessions included five turnovers, two missed free throws and a missed three-pointer. Before the game was four minutes old, the Gophers were down 11-2. By the time the first quarter ended Minnesota, which never led, was down 13.
Asked what led to the slow start, forward Destiny Pitts, who led the Gophers with 18 points, said, “I’m not really sure.”
Pitts hit six of eight three-point attempts and had six assists. But she also had seven of the Gophers’ 19 turnovers.
“Whether it’s the first game or not, we have to come out ready to play,” Pitts said. “I don’t feel like we came out with the energy in the first quarter, and it set us back in the game. I feel we needed to come out and punch them in the mouth rather than get punched in the mouth on our home court.’’
Interestingly Lady Bears coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton used the same terminology. The former Michigan State associate head coach is in her first year coaching the Bears; last season’s run got former coach Kellie Harper the head job at Tennessee. The Bears’ plan was to come out swinging themselves. Specifically, to go hard at Gophers post Taiye Bello, knowing the Gophers don’t have a lot of depth at the position.
Bello picked up two fouls 1½ minutes into the game and had to sit. Just five minutes later the Bears were up 14.
Bello scored 13 points in 21-plus minutes, but had just two rebounds. The Gophers were outrebounded 41-21. The Bears’ quickness got them to the line, where they went 17-for-17. Their veteran lineup was led by guard Brice Calip (21 points), Jasmine Franklin (14 and 10 rebounds) and Alexa Willard (13).
The Bears shot nearly 55%. The Gophers, an impressive 11-for-18 on three-pointers, were only 15-for-46 from inside the arc, often struggling to finish at the basket.
“That’s a team you can see returns [so many players] from a Sweet 16 team,’’ Whalen said. “After the first quarter I felt we played better, but we got down 13 at the start. And they made the plays you’d think a team that has been in those situations would make. They had an answer for every run we had.’’
There were a few.
Down 11 in the second quarter, Bello scored seven straight points to pull the Gophers within four, but Franklin made a layup and Calip a three-pointer as the Bears scored the final five points of the half.
Down 13 early in the third, the Gophers mounted their strongest challenge. Pitts hit three three-pointers and Jasmine Brunson (14 points) scored five in a 16-6 run that pulled the Gophers within 50-47 on Pitt’s trey with 2:28 left in the quarter.
But the Bears outscored the Gophers 17-7 over the next eight-plus minutes, building a 13-point lead with just under six minutes left in the game.
The Gophers will likely learn more from this loss than they might have from a one-sided victory over an inferior opponent. And there are more tough teams on the horizon.
“That’s why we have to come ready to play every practice, every game” Whalen said. “If you don’t, you’ll be down 13 real quick to a good team.’’