The line of cars backed up at the University Avenue exit off I-35W could be longer on Gophers women’s basketball game nights. This is the dream of second-year coach Marlene Stollings.
The Ohio native grew up arriving two hours early for Lady Buckeyes games. The alternative was sitting in traffic on the freeway edging toward the exit for 30 minutes.
“I envision you have to leave extra early for our home games,” Stollings said. “It’s been done here, so you know it can be done again. … I believe it’s going to happen in a short amount of time.”
The Gophers season ended last Sunday in the second round of the women’s NIT. The postseason appearance was the second straight under Stollings, though expectations were much higher after a successful first season.
In Stollings’ first year, she led the Gophers back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years and won 23 games without injured star Rachel Banham. The fifth-year senior returned this season and broke nearly every scoring record possible.
The Gophers won 20 games again, but lacked the quality wins to boost their RPI and missed the NCAA tournament.
After having four days to assess the season, Stollings was mostly positive.
“We’re thrilled about the direction of the program,” she said. “You look at our less than two years here and two 20-win seasons and the individual accomplishments of some of our players are on a level that some people can coach 30 years and not achieve. We’re really proud of those ladies for what they’ve achieved under our tutelage.”
The Gophers were the highest-scoring team in program history (83.6 points per game), scoring 100 points five times and 90 points in 10 games. Their 292 three-pointers were also a program record. Banham and Carlie Wagner were the top scoring duo (1,520 points) in the nation. And for the second straight year the Gophers produced the Big Ten Player of the Year (Banham following Amanda Zahui B.) and should produce another WNBA first-round draft pick.
“You don’t replace a Rachel. She’s a special lady,” Stollings said. “I think you’ll see we’re going to be very different looking.
“We wanted to play to Rachel’s strengths. … She was the centerpiece of our success. [Next season] we’ll have more pieces to work with and see more team involvement rather than highlighting one player.
“We’ve played some exciting offensive basketball, but I think what you’re going to see next year is going to start looking more to the form and shape what we ultimately want to be.”
The Gophers’ new-look will focus on balanced scoring, inside and out. Stollings is also confident more scoring will be generated from defense, which isn’t something they’ve done well since she took over.
“We were always, obviously, trying to hide some weaknesses defensively,” Stollings said. “What you’ll see defensively coming in is speed, anticipation, the ability to get up and pressure the ball. We want to do more defensively, and we’re going to be able to do that with the pieces coming in.”
The incoming class includes four out-of-state standouts: guard Gadiva Hubbard, forward Taiye Bello, forward Kehinde Bello and guard Jasmine Brunson. Iowa State transfer Bryanna Fernstrom, a center from Chisago Lakes, also will add a big presence down low.
Kenisha Bell, a former Bloomington Kennedy standout, also will be eligible to play after transferring from Marquette.