GoAUpher: Big thanks to AudenGopher. The Gopher Women do deserve all the press they can get. There's more I'd like to do when I can find the time, but I am proud to bump this worthy piece first.
Nobody's writing about this impressive Gopher women's basketball team! Should I complain? Sure, but trying to be productive I'll try to step up and write about going to the Gophers 77-73 loss to Maryland on Sunday and my impressions of the team so far.
First of all, I haven't followed the women's team as closely the last few years but have been very impressed with Banham in that time. She's one of the best in the country. So naturally I thought this team would struggle after she went down, but they've totally stepped up since then and are still one of the better teams in the Big Ten.
They played probably the best team in the Big Ten on Sunday, but even though it was a loss the Gophers played very well and with a lot of heart. Maryland made the Final Four last year and would be a very strong contender to do so again. They had a number of quick, decisive guards who could knock down open shots. Lexie Brown, the daughter of former NBA player Dee Brown (the one from Jacksonville, not Illinois), was probably the best among them. But they shared the ball well and made lots of quick passes to get the Gopher's zone moving. They also had some skillful big bodies who gave Zahui a lot to handle. In short, Maryland is a tough, solid, fundamental team who seemed to have an answer for any run Minnesota had. Believe me when I say Maryland definitely won this game, as opposed to the Gophers losing.
In no way am I claiming a moral victory for the Gophers, but this loss told me as much about the team as their victories have. It all starts with Amanda Zahui B, the Swedish Shaq. First of all, she is still huge but in much better shape this year. The most impressive thing about her is her hands, she catches everything! Much of our offense was throwing lob passes over the top because we have a tree inside who will catch them. Once she gets the ball she's also a very good finisher, near automatic with the ball in the paint. But I was also impressed with her free throw and mid-range stroke, extending out to 17-18 feet. Of course she's a rebounding machine but I honestly think she can get significantly better at this, which is a scary thought (considering she already averages nearly a dozen boards a game!) She doesn't always get the best position, and like seemingly all Gopher players she has to do a much better job of boxing out. Likewise, her positioning on defense needs some fine tuning, as the Maryland posts were able to get deep in the paint on her several times. But because she's so big and has good footwork she still makes a huge impact getting boards and blocking shots on defense. I read that Zahui is patterning her game after Janel McCarville, but I haven't seen as much of the playmaking and passing ability out of Zahui yet. Like I mentioned before, it's remarkable how great she is now and scary to think about how good she could become.
Shae Kelley was a fantastic pick up by Stollings for this year. With Banham going down Kelley is playing a huge part in giving us some more balanced scoring. She's a post but has a perimeter player's game with good handles and incredible athleticism (she pulled off a very impressive euro-step against Maryland.) She's not as tough on the interior as I was hoping for, but she's so long and athletic that she still makes a good impact defensively. I really wish we had another year of her but she will be very important the rest of this season.
With Banham going down, the other player that TDG fans have probably heard of is Carlie Wagner. Being originally from rural southern Minnesota I had followed her phenomenal high school career, wondering how it would translate to the Big Ten. She's in the process of living up to my already high expectations. (I re-watched the final 5 minutes of the game on DVR, and the commentators called her "fearless." I like that trait a lot.) She has got a pull-up jumper good enough for the WNBA already, and some incredible body control on her catch and shoot opportunities. She's a born scorer, but also an adept passer and playmaker. She's definitely not a chucker and shares the ball wonderfully, especially breaking down the defense in transition. She has got a long way to go to be an effective defender, but all the athletic capabilities for being one are already there. To sum up, Wagner is the real deal and I'm so happy she'll be a Gopher until 2018.
Shayne Mullaney has had to step up at point guard since Banham went down, and has been doing a fine job (career high 12 assists against Maryland.) She's got a great connection with Zahui and knows how to feed her, but she also plays a little more loose with possession than I like to see out of point guards. Maryland's pressure got to her at times throughout the game keying some large runs for the Terrapins. She will have to continue stepping up and improving for this team to keep on impressing the rest of the year.
Other key players in the Gophers' rotation include:
Kayla Hirt- had some injury issues in previous years but now does a little bit of everything on both sides for the Gophers, didn't play as much vs. the Terps but she's probably their most important bench player.
Mikayla Bailey- 3 point specialist in that she takes (but doesn't necessarily make) a lot of threes, she hit some huge shots on Sunday though and that's what she needs to keep doing for this team
Tory Jacobs- freshmen point guard who we'll need more minutes from to back up Mullaney now that Banham is down
Stabresa McDaniel- hasn't played as much this year but was impressive against Maryland with some aggressive offense off the bench
Even without Banham I believe there is enough scoring power, balance, and depth to make a good run in the NCAA. (I should wait until later, but please come back next year Rachel! This team could be really amazing then!) Shore up the rebounding and turnovers and this will be a very hard team to beat.
So this was a lot to write and hopefully read, but I think this team deserves to have some more coverage. Especially since they might honestly be the only positive sports story around town these days. If I have the chance to attend more games this year I'd gladly write more "brief" synopses. But I highly recommend Gopher fans get out and support this team because not only do they have a great future, they're also proving each week that their present is pretty promising as well. Tickets were $8, cheaper than a movie, and despite the defeat my family and I had a great time. Plus, even though the crowd was probably 5-6,000 it felt much more than that because the Barn is always special.
Gophers play at Ohio State on Thursday night (on BTN plus- boooooo!) but are back at the Barn on Sunday hosting Indiana on BTN. Check them out on TV, or better yet, go support them at the Barn, because this is a really impressive team and I believe they're only going to get better.