They had a hard time believing their coach back then, on those sweat-soaked summer days when the Gophers felt the burn in their legs and lungs. Marlene Stollings promised her exhausted players that when they got deep into the basketball season, when stamina and fitness mattered most, they would understand why she was pushing them through such grueling workouts.
Now that the Gophers are reaping the payoff, they see the purpose behind the pain. They are charging into the final nine days of the regular season — including Saturday’s game against Michigan at Williams Arena — with enough fuel left in the tank for an extended journey. After a five-game stretch in which their energy flagged, the Gophers have caught a second wind, entering their home finale on a four-game winning streak.
Stollings’ starters have shown particular fortitude. All five are averaging more than 30 minutes per game while running the Gophers’ up-tempo offense, and their endurance has become a point of pride.
“There have been a couple of times this year where it’s come down to crunch time in the last few minutes of the game, and we’ve come out on top because we’ve had so much conditioning,” freshman guard Carlie Wagner said. “Those last couple minutes, [opponents] are dogging, and they’re tired. And we still have a little juice left in us to make it through the game.
“When we were running last summer, we were like, ‘Sure, whatever. This isn’t fun.’ And now, we’re so glad we did it because it was totally worth it.”
Some of the Gophers, including point guard Shayne Mullaney and forward Shae Kelley, are used to playing lots of minutes. Others have adapted. Guard Mikayla Bailey’s playing time has doubled from last season to a team-high 33.9 minutes per game, and Wagner is averaging 30.8 minutes against rugged Big Ten competition.
Of the five players on the Gophers’ bench, four are playing fewer than 7½ minutes per game.
Stollings said that heavy reliance on the starters isn’t unusual in the Big Ten, adding that most teams have three or four players who routinely log 35 minutes or more. She also emphasizes rest and recovery throughout the season, which helps limit the wear and tear of a 30-game schedule.
“We feel we’re not any different from anybody else [in terms of starters’ minutes],” she said. “And we feel very prepared to play that number of minutes, with our strength and conditioning.”
The day before last Tuesday’s victory over No. 13 Iowa, the Gophers did not run a full-speed practice. Instead, they did a walk-through, allowing their brains to do the bulk of the work as they reviewed strategy.
Stollings admitted some coaches might find that unorthodox, but that extra rest contributed to a strong, sharp performance.
The players committed last summer to two workouts on the track and three weightlifting sessions every week, which built their stamina. Throughout the season, they have been just as devoted to careful maintenance of their bodies. Mullaney said they do not walk around at the mall, and they do their homework in bed to stay off their legs. They also make sure they finish studying early enough to get a good night’s sleep.
Athletic trainer Kate Taber has the players use stretching regimens, foam rollers and soaks in hot and cold tubs to ease physical stress and fatigue, while players hold each other accountable for following good habits.
“All those things make a big difference in our recovery and how we play in games,” said Mullaney, whose 33.8 minutes per game is second-most on the team. “We’re all really smart about it.
“Everyone in the country is grinding right now. Everyone has played a lot of minutes. But you have to stay mentally tough and tune out the fatigue, and you have to make it a priority to take care of yourself.”
Mullaney said those summer workouts have given the Gophers a mental edge as well as a physical one.
They believe their fitness provides an advantage, she said, particularly late in games. Stollings noted it will become even more important later in the season.
“Everyone increases their intensity, their pace, their energy level this time of year,” she said. “We have to be able to match it.”