For the third straight game in this brief, COVID-19-delayed season, the Gophers women's basketball team spent the first quarter digging. For the second straight time, the hole that resulted proved impossible to get out of.
In an 81-68 loss to Michigan State at Williams Arena on Wednesday, there were too many turnovers and too much Nia Clouden as the Gophers (1-2) lost their second straight game in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
"It's tough, the way we started out in these first three games," coach Lindsay Whalen said. "We need to be tougher with the ball. Flat out, we need to be tougher. There were times when they were just taking it from us."
Clouden had 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting. Fellow guard Alyza Winston hit four of seven three-pointers for 20 points.
The Gophers? They turned the ball over 23 times, resulting in 30 points for the Spartans
The game started on an up note, with Sara Scalia back from injury and in the starting lineup, playing for the first time this season. Same for freshman guard Alexia Smith, who made her Gophers debut. When Jasmine Powell made a nice pass to Kadi Sissoko for the game's first basket, the Gophers had their first lead in two games.
And then: Over the next five minutes the Spartans (3-0) turned seven Gophers turnovers into 10 points in a 16-0 run that put MSU up 16-2 on a three-point play by Clouden, one of the most dynamic scorers in the conference.
That lead grew to 20 points before a 15-5 Gophers run — spurred by three three-pointers from Gadiva Hubbard (17 points) — pulled Minnesota within 10 at the half. But the Gophers couldn't come all the way back.
"We're not putting the ball up, we're just turning the ball over," said Powell, who had 16 points and six assists — and seven turnovers — before fouling out in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Forced to go with Smith at the point the rest of the way, the Gophers offense struggled.
The Gophers are trying to coalesce in a season in which injury and illness has limited practice time and player availability. Scalia (nine points) had almost no practice time in weeks. Smith was forced to play 29 minutes in her debut.
The game got out of hand quickly. "I think we were rushing with it," Hubbard said. "We tried to force passes that just weren't there."
Both Sissoko (10 points) and Smith appeared to turn their ankles during the second half, but both returned to action. Whalen said she hoped they would be OK to play at Northwestern on Monday. By then, there is a chance Laura Bagwell-Katalinich will be available, too. That plus the ability to get multiple practices in with an expanding roster before the next game is crucial for a team trying to find a way to start games stronger.
"We get a few days now, before we go to Northwestern, where we can get better in practice," Whalen said. "We have time to focus on ourselves. Obviously, nobody wants to play from behind. … I'm tired of it."