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Minnesota Women’s Basketball: Gophers to Open Abbreviated Non-Conference Season

The shorthanded Gophers will take on Eastern Illinois at the Barn

Chris H, The Daily Gopher

The Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s basketball team will begin year three under Lindsay Whalen’s tutelage Wednesday afternoon with a 2PM matinee against Eastern Illinois at Williams Arena. It will be the first of only two non-conference games on the 2020-21 schedule for the Gophers in what is sure to be a very weird season.

Minnesota is only playing two non-conference games in the next week before opening a 20-game Big Ten schedule a week from Wednesday against Michigan State, While most of the other Big Ten teams are playing up to the maximum allowed five non-conference games this season, Minnesota only has two on the schedule. Why? Well we got some clarification on that in a Kent Youngblood story in the Star Tribune on Monday. Minnesota only has seven players available for their two non-conference games, today against Eastern Illinois and Sunday against Drake. The Gopher line-up is very short at the moment due to a combination of COVID-19 concerns and injuries. Minnesota had to suspend team workouts in November due to COVID and only returned to practice last week. Thus, the lack of non-conference games on the schedule that would have needed to be cancelled anyways.

According to Youngblood, Minnesota’s seven players for their two non-conference games are expected to be sophomore point guard Jasmine Powell and wings senior Gadiva Hubbard and redshirt sophomore Kadi Sissoko. Freshman Erin Hedman and either redshirt freshman Grace Cumming or sophomore Klarke Sconiers will be in the post.

The only reserves are forward redshirt freshman Justice Ross and either Cumming or Sconiers.

Of the seven available players, it’s a very young inexperienced group. Only Hubbard and Powell have played significant time for the Gophers. Sissoko is a highly rated 5-star transfer from Syracuse but due to injury and transfer she has not played in an actual game in nearly two seasons. Sconiers is the only other player with experience as she got into 17 games with Minnesota last season. Both Ross and Cumming sat out last year with injuries and Hedman is a true freshman.

The good news is that it sounds like the Gophers will have their full roster back for the start of the Big Ten season in a week. Of the four players who are missing either by injury or illness are two were expected starters in sophomore guard Sara Scalia, and grad transfer from Cornell, post player Laura Bagwell-Katalinich Minnesota also is hoping to get extended playing time from five-star freshman Alexia Smith when she returns. The fourth missing player is freshman guard Caroline Strande. Additionally Minnesota is hoping to hear back from the NCAA on an eligibility waiver on Nebraska transfer post player Kayla Mershon. The junior from Minnetonka played limited minutes in all 60 of Nebraska’s games over the past two years and would provide some additional depth up the middle.

On paper this is Lindsay Whalen’s deepest roster, but we all know paper doesn’t win you basketball games. The key to the season will be the guard play of both sophomores Powell and Scalia. Both were named to the All-Big Ten freshman team a year ago and will be expected to step into leadership roles on this team along with Hubbard as they go forward. if they can live up to their potential and Minnesota can find quality post play from Bagwell-Katalinich who averaged over 13 points per game a season ago for Cornell and possibly get some impact from one of the newcomers in Sissoko or Smith, it could be a good season for the Gophers. However if they struggle in the post and the guards can’t make plays when needed, it could go down as just another disappointment in the year that is 2020.

The full Minnesota schedule is below:

The Gophers do luck out a bit with their conference schedule. Minnesota only plays three of the top five teams in the preseason coaches rankings once—Indiana, Northwestern and Ohio State.

As for Wednesday’s opener it will be just the second time ever the Gophers and the Panthers have ever faced off. Southern Illinois won the only contest between the two schools exactly 20 years ago to the day 73-72 at a tournament in Lawrence, Kansas. The Panthers are 1-0 on the season after a win over Illinois-Chciago. Minnesota’s youthful post will need to try and keep reigning OVC player of the week Abby Wahl in check. She scored 16 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in the Panthers win over UIC last week.

Panthers head coach Matt Bollant is a familiar face around Williams Arena as he was the Illinois head coach from 2012-2017. He is a Winona native and a Winona State grad.

The game will tip off at 2:00 PM and will stream live on BTN+ ($$). The game can be heard in the Twin Cities on 96.7 FM and will stream on the I Heart Radio App.