Gophers women overcoming loss of best player
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Marlene Stollings took over at struggling Minnesota this summer, she put two goals right on the table.
The quietly intense coach left VCU to get the Golden Gophers back into The Associated Press Top 25 and to restore the enthusiasm for the program in a market that has a history of supporting it when things are rolling.
Those goals figured to get a lot harder when preseason Big Ten player of the year Rachel Banham was lost for the season to a knee injury on Dec. 10.
The 23rd-ranked Gophers (14-1, 3-0) have responded by opening conference play with three straight victories, including their first at Purdue in 10 years, to return to Top 25 for the first time since March 2006.
Stollings replaced Pam Borton, who led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament in five of her first six seasons, but had not taken them back since 2009. With Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville on board, the Gophers advanced to the Final Four in 2004 and became one of the hottest tickets in town.
“That’s been a goal since our arrival,” Stollings said. “We have great respect for this region and how much they love women’s basketball and respect women’s basketball. They’re just looking for a winner and someone they can follow. It’s our goal to put that product on the floor each and every night.”
They beat then-No. 12 Nebraska at home before getting road wins at Purdue and Wisconsin. They host No. 12 Maryland (12-2, 3-0) on Sunday.
“We were really scared at first,” freshman guard Carlie Wagner said of seeing Banham go down. “It’s a big deal when your best player, our scorer, our team leader goes down. We realized that we all had to step up and we came together.
“There are some teams that decide to fall apart and we came together and everybody stepped up all areas of their game trying to replace what Rachel brought for us. We’ve really come together well.”
The Gophers are thriving on a break-neck pace that Stollings brought from VCU. To prepare her team for the up-tempo style, Stollings put her players through a grueling summer of strength and conditioning workouts.
“We really rocked their world this summer,” Stollings said. “It was so drastically different than what they were accustomed to, but not unlike what a lot of teams were doing across the country. We do think we do a few things unique to the rest of what everybody else does. ... For them to see success early in the season, I think it is very rewarding for them. Now they understand the why, which is very important.”
With Banham out, the Gophers are now leaning on Swedish center Amanda Zahui B. The 6-foot-5 from Stockholm has won Big Ten player of the week each of the last two weeks and is averaging 19.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and 4.8 blocks over her last five games.
Their biggest test of the season comes on Sunday against the Terrapins and coach Brenda Frese, who started the Gophers’ renaissance when she took a team that had finished in 10th or 11th in the Big Ten in four straight seasons to the second round of the NCAA tournament in her only season at Minnesota in 2001-02.
“You always hear about Maryland. They’re a powerhouse,” Wagner said. “They’re No. 12 in the rankings, but when Nebraska came in here, they were No. 12, too. We’re not thinking about how highly ranked they are. We’re just going to play our game. They’re coming to our house and we’re going to protect it.”