A couple snippets from a practice last week as the Gophers women's basketball team prepared for Tuesday's season opener against Jacksonville:

  • During a scrimmage, Kadi Sissoko got a defensive rebound and got the ball to point guard Jasmine Powell. Seconds later, having outsprinted everyone down the floor, Sissoko took a long pass from Powell and scored.
  • Moments later, in the post, Sissoko got the ball. She head-faked to her right, then spun left with such quickness that the guy who was part of the practice group never moved.

When it comes to the combination of size (6-2), speed and quickness, Sissoko is the Gophers' most athletic player. And she spent the better part of October, in the team's training camp, showing it.

"She is in a great place,'' Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen said. "I think she's just comfortable, finally.''

A great place being the gym. Finally.

As a freshman in 2018-19 at Syracuse, Sissoko, a five-star recruit, was limited by a knee injury. Then, after transferring to Minnesota, she sat out the 2019-20 season as her knee reached 100%. Last season's COVID-19 pandemic and limited schedule meant Sissoko has only 20 games and 19 starts the last two years.

A year ago, it was especially difficult. A native of Paris, Sissoko was forced to stay inside her home the entire summer of 2020 because of COVID restrictions.

"I didn't have access to a gym,'' she said. "I couldn't work on my game.''

Once she made her way to Minnesota in the fall, Sissoko had to quarantine again. Then, when COVID ran through the team, contact tracing kept her to her Dinkytown apartment for a good bit of another month. By the time the Gophers got started last December, Sissoko had only a handful of practices to work off two years' worth of rust.

And then she went out and scored a career-high 24 points with eight rebounds in the Gophers' season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois.

It was the start of an up and down season for Sissoko, the team's starting power forward. There were times when she was dominant — back-to-back double-doubles against Wisconsin and Iowa. Three games with 20 or more points, scoring in double figures 13 times, leading the team in field goals made (101) and attempted (243), finishing fifth in Big Ten with 2.67 offensive rebounds per game in conference play.

But there were also times when Sissoko would use her quickness to get a good shot, but wouldn't finish. Or when foul trouble limited her minutes and effectiveness. The Gophers were 7-6 when she scored in double figures, 1-6 when she didn't; she missed the team's loss in the conference tournament after being injured in the regular-season finale. Sissoko finished the season averaging 12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists.

This year has been different — so far. The Gophers have had a strong month of practice. Sissoko has been there for all of it. She has spent hours after practices working on finishing at the rim, extending her shooting range. Whalen said her finishing from the free-throw line in has been outstanding.

"She had a full summer here,'' Whalen said. "She's been able to do skill development. Last year was the tip of the iceberg.''