On Sunday the Gophers women’s basketball team’s regular season will come to an end with a game at Williams Arena against seventh-ranked Maryland.
It has been a long year.
The team has had some nice wins but also many disappointing losses — more, perhaps, than most expected when it began. The season has had controversy that threatened to break up the team, but also reconciliation.
Taiye Bello has been in the middle of it all.
Bello, her twin sister, Kehinde, Jasmine Brunson and Masha Adashchyk will be honored on senior day. And then Taiye will go out and — perhaps for the last time in the Barn — play like one of the best post players in program history.
“I want to have fun,” she said. “It’s my last game. Just have fun and try to take everything in, I guess.”
She is still chasing down milestones. Bello is 22 rebounds from becoming the fifth player in program history with 1,000. And this after not becoming a regular starter until coach Lindsay Whalen assumed control last year.
She is 56 points shy of 1,000. For her to reach both, the Gophers would likely need a run in next week’s Big Ten Conference tournament or, barring that, a berth in the Women’s NIT, which would afford the team more games.
Bello already holds the school record for offensive rebounds, and she has spent much of the past two seasons ranked high both in conference and nationally in that category. Her 380 rebounds last year was the fourth-most in program history.
This year her rebounding totals are down a bit, in large part because opponents have worked to stop her. They assign a defender whose job is not to get rebounds but to prevent Bello from doing so. Teams double-team trying to block her out.
“It’s something she’s had to deal with the majority of the season,” Whalen said. “But she’s still up there in the rankings in the Big Ten. It says a lot about her determination.”
Whalen has played with mighty rebounders. She played with Janel McCarville at the U and with the Lynx. Her former Lynx teammate Rebekkah Brunson is the best rebounder in WNBA history. It is Brunson that Whalen sees when she watches Bello.
“With Janel, her rebounding was more position; she was so good getting to her spots,” Whalen said. “Whereas Taiye reminds me more of Brunson, where there is just an undeniable will to go get the ball.”
More than anything, Whalen looks at Bello as a player who, in blue-collar fashion, earned everything she has.
“I like that description,” Bello said. “I think I agree with that.”
When Destiny Pitts was suspended for the game at Illinois on Jan. 12, Bello and her sister decided not to travel with the team in support of their teammate and a friend since high school in Michigan. After Pitts announced her decision to enter the transfer portal, the Bellos were allowed back.
Whalen was known as a fiercely loyal teammate as a player. As such, she could understand the Bellos’ decision on some level.
“I knew what they were thinking and feeling,’’ Whalen said. “Their reasoning. I can commend that. [But] it was a little rocky those first, say, two weeks when they came back. There were a lot of emotions going around. It took a little while, on both sides. But I told the guys it was, ‘They’re back, and they’re here to work.’ Our seniors, they worked through that. And I’m really proud that they worked it to where they are now, where they’re competing and they’re doing it together.”
Whalen said Brunson’s leadership was essential during that time — keeping the team together, facilitating the Bellos’ return.
“We all understood how big a loss that was for our team, our family, for our sisterhood,” Brunson said of Pitts’ departure. And the Bellos’ return?
“I can’t lie, it was difficult,” Brunson said. “Especially for me, because I came in with the twins. You understand they felt loyal to Destiny. But they also apologized and showed they wanted to be part of the team.”
Taiye Bello stands by her decision. “I think it was a difficult decision to make,” she said. “But it’s not one that I regret. I feel like I did what I needed to do as a teammate and a friend.”
In the weeks since, she has worked even harder to be a good teammate. A few weeks after that difficult stretch, Bello had one of the best games of her career, 22 rebounds and 19 points in a double-overtime victory over Rutgers.
“I think we came out of it better as a family,” she said. “You know, families go through things, and you figure it out. I think that’s what we needed to do.”
One of the things Whalen is most proud of is how her team has come back together.
“It takes a lot on both sides,” she said. “I’m proud of how [the seniors] managed a situation they’d never been in before.”
Bello will keep rebounding, keep defending in the middle. On a team that often goes with a small lineup, Bello’s responsibilities in the post, on both ends of the floor, are immense.
“I guess I’m most proud of how I’ve been able to step up the last few years,” she said.