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The Gopher women's basketball squad is the most compelling team in the Twin Cities right now

Carlie Wagner may be the team’s top conditioned athlete.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Carlie Wagner may be the team’s top conditioned athlete.

The 2014-15 season of the University of Minnesota Gopher women's basketball team has spun from a chimerical fairy tale into a compelling drama. Over the span of a week.

Under new coach Marlene Stollings, the Gophers came into the season with justifiably robust expectations. In senior guard Rachel Banham, the team boasted a 5-9 playmaker who was named the Big 10 preseason player of the year and is projected to be a first-round pick in the WNBA draft at the conclusion of her college career.

But in the tenth game of the season, at North Dakota on December 10, Banham crumpled to the court with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.

This potentially devastating development has actually kicked the Gophers’ feel-good story up another notch. The team rallied around its fallen leader, unveiling Buckets For Banham t-shirts during warm-ups before the next contest, a sudden tradition that has occurred every game since then. 

Although the team finished the non-conference portion of the season 11-1, ten of those twelve games were with Banham. Few gave the Gophers much chance against 12th-ranked Nebraska in the Big 10 opener. But Minnesota erased a 17-point deficit and eked out a thrilling three-point win — then went on the road and beat Purdue and Wisconsin.

Just like that, the Gophers were national news. They had won ten in a row to boost their record to 14-1. They were nationally ranked for the first time since 2006, voted 23rd in the Associated Press poll. Their next matchup was against 8th ranked Maryland, whose coach, Brenda Frese (nee Oldfield), had won national Coach of the Year honors in 2002 while guiding a Gophers team led by Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville into the NCAA tournament.

Although they lost, 77-73, the fact that the Gophers had taken heralded Maryland, regarded as the best team in the Big 10, down to the wire in a highly competitive and well-played game, further boosted the profile of the program and solidified their credentials as a post-Banham contender.

They went on the road and beat Ohio State, then returned home and triumphed over Indiana on a last-second shot by freshman Carlie Wagner. Their 16-2 record was the best eighteen-game opening in the history of the women's basketball program.

Reality bites

Next up on the schedule was Purdue, an opponent the Gophers had thumped by double-digits on the road in West Lafayette, Indiana, on New Year’s Day. In many respects it was a classic “trap” game, in that the Gophers’ sugar-high from successfully rallying to surmount the loss of Banham and receiving relatively copious media attention for their storybook exploits was bound to abate at some point. In addition, it was easy to take Purdue for granted, as the Boilermakers had succumbed on its home floor to Minnesota just three weeks earlier and came into Williams Arena having lost four in a row.

Even so, Purdue came into the game with an RPI ranking (which factors strength-of-schedule into its calibrations) in the top 50, a pair of athletic guards and a deadly midrange shooter. They shot 61 percent while registering 50 points in the first half, leading by as many as 15 before withstanding a Gophers rally to win in overtime, 90-88.

Three days later, the Gophers traveled to New Jersey to face Rutgers, regarded as a top-tier Big 10 opponent. Less than ten minutes into the game, Minnesota was being pummeled, 25-5, a whopping deficit fueled by nine turnovers in that short span. As has been their custom all season, the Gophers rallied, closing the gap to three points with just 16 seconds remaining before losing 66-61 for its first two-game losing streak of the season.

Strengths and weaknesses

The star power of Banham and the temptation to magnify the resilient spirit of the rest of the team in her absence obscures the reality that the Gophers boast plenty of talent even without their best player.

Begin with Swedish center Amanda Zahui B, a hulking 6-5 sophomore with surprisingly quick and silky moves on offense, a near-unstoppable force in the low post who can also step outside and bury jumpers with a deft shooter’s touch.

Zahui B led the Big 10 in rebounding as a freshman and is an intimidating shot-blocker based on her towering size alone. But it is on offense where she has shone elite ability, especially in the absence of Banham. In the last two games alone, she made all eleven of her shot attempts versus Purdue and posted 36 points against Rutgers. Even as a still-callow sophomore, she is already regarded as a sure-fire future first-round pick in the WNBA draft.

Zahui B’s frontcourt mate is 6-1 forward Shae Kelley, a fifth-year senior who decided to spend an extra year in college honing her basketball skills after being named to the 2014 All-Conference USA First Team at Old Dominion. Kelley’s locker room leadership and steadying presence has been especially important since Banham’s injury. She combines quickness and savvy at both ends of the court, with an excellent Euro-step enabling her dribble penetration. Like Zahui B, she currently ranks among the top ten in scoring in the Big 10.

Shae Kelley combines quickness and savvy at both ends of the court
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Shae Kelley combines quickness and savvy at both ends of the court, with an excellent Euro-step enabling her dribble penetration.

The swingman is 5-10 freshman Carlie Wagner, who averaged 37 points per game her senior year in high school at New Richland, the second-highest total in Minnesota women’s prep history. She may also be the team’s top conditioned athlete.

Rounding out the starting five is a pair of juniors in the backcourt, 5-10 point guard Shayne Mullaney and 5-9 three-point specialist Mikayla Bailey, both Academic All Americans.

Even without Banham, this group is potent enough to rank fourth in the Big 10 in scoring. The problem is a lack of depth and backcourt athleticism, both of which factor into a scoring defense that ranks 11th among the fourteen Big 10 teams.

When Coach Stollings took over for the fired Pam Borton during the off-season, she knew she had to hedge against the inevitable fatigue that comes from playing the high-powered, uptempo offense she prefers. This was especially salient because the team didn’t have a lot of depth,  and because the bulwark of the defense, the 6-5 Zahui B, was prone to get into foul trouble.

In response, Stollings instituted a matchup zone defensive scheme, which requires less overt physical exertion than man-to-man coverages, but demands greater awareness, communication and teamwork in order to function efficiently. Stolling upped the ante by tinkering with the zone schemes according to the advance scouting report on the next opponent. This compels her team to learn new wrinkles on a discipline that already requires ad hoc adjustments and judgments.

When the defense works, as against Maryland, it is a beautiful thing and makes the Gophers a force to be reckoned with at both ends of the court. And the system has generally been successful at keeping the Gophers out of foul trouble and conserving energy for offensive execution.

But the loss of the athletic Banham may be more acute at the defensive end of the floor. Both Mullaney and Bailey are smart and experienced enough to adapt to the schemes out on the perimeter, but they are routinely going up against at least one, and sometimes two, superior athletes initiating the opponents’ offense. And while Wagner is athletic, her inexperience occasionally is unearthed via blown assignments.

The weakness of the Gophers’ matchup zone is often the seam between the perimeter wing players and the larger players down in the post. Quickness off the dribble and rapid ball-movement forces the perimeter players to overcommit, opening up the seam for a player to flash down to the short corner or the sweet spot about 15 feet directly in front of the basket. Unless Kelley or Zahui B is especially adept at coming out to contest, that is a makeable open midrange jumper.

It just so happens that both Purdue and Rutgers had quick, capable guards and at least one mobile frontcourt player who could knock down midrange shots — the worst possible scenario for the Gopher defensive scheme. Against Purdue, that was exacerbated by Zahui B getting in foul trouble, limiting her to just 27 minutes. And against both Purdue and Rutgers, the defense was also hurt by the pressure put on Mullaney, creating turnovers that led to transition baskets.

Pivotal point

While Pam Borton had some notable success during her 12-year stint in Minnesota, taking the Gophers to the Final Four her second year in 2003-04, she increasingly came under fire for being too controlling and hard on her team, leading to frequent letdowns in the second half of the season.

Stollings came from Virginia Commonwealth University, the same school where current U of M Athletic Director Norwood Teague served as AD before being hired to run Gopher sports. A head coach for only three years (one at Winthrop, two at VCU), she is known for turning around moribund programs with a fun, fast-paced offensive philosophy. But if you ask her what she regards as the most important thing she can provide to this Gopher team, she talks about attitude instead of schemes.

“I am trying very hard to give them a belief in themselves, knowing we believe in them and what we want them to do. And we do believe in them — there is nothing fake about that.

“They have amazed me in the way they have come together in the absence of Rachel,” Stollings continues. “I tell them every day that I am proud to coach them. They have some of the intangibles that great teams have that don’t really come from a coach. Their camaraderie is just so solid.”

But now that camaraderie and internal confidence is being put to the test. It is very likely that the Gophers surprised themselves, at least a little bit, by how well they responded to Banham’s injury. But that was a challenge brought on by outside forces beyond their control. The season’s first two-game losing streak needs to provoke a different type of belief and resilience.

The Gophers are now one of three teams clumped at 5-3 in the Big 10 behind Maryland and Iowa in the standings. Stollings correctly notes that the next few weeks will be one of “separation,” with the quality teams hanging tough in contention while the lesser ball clubs start to drop off. Fortunately the near-term schedule is relatively kind, as Minnesota’s next six games are against opponents currently beneath them in the standings.

But after that, the Gophers finish with a rugged four-game slate that includes two games versus Iowa and ends with road tests against Nebraska and Iowa.

At it currently stands, it seems likely that the team will perform well enough to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. But a chance to host a tournament as one of the top 16 seeds — a possibility before the last two defeats — now feels like a longshot that would almost require the team to either run the table on the regular season or perform well deep into the Big 10 tournament.

A bright future

Either way, the Gopher women's basketball program is suddenly on very firm footing. Last week, Banham delighted the U of M faithful by announcing that she would return for another season (eligible because of her injury), turning down the chance to turn pro in the WNBA next year. Meanwhile, Zahui B will be back for her junior year, giving the Gophers the likelihood of two future first-round picks in the WNBA for the first time since the heyday of Whalen and McCarville.

Among the current starters, only Kelley is a departing senior. And to beef up the depth and athleticism in the backcourt, former DeLaSalle standout Allina Starr, a 5-10 guard, has transferred from Auburn and will be eligible to play by the middle of next season.

Starr is already working out with the team. Her presence addresses another criticism of Borton, which is that the former coach rarely recruited prized prep players from the Twin Cities urban area.

Add Starr to Banham, Zahui B, Wagner and others, plus Stollings reputation as a recruiter, and the feel-good vibe permeating Gopher women's basketball may continue to blossom — without the part about overcoming adversity. 

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Comments (15)

Thanks for covering the Gopher Women's Team

Thanks for covering the Gopher Women's basketball team, and especially for doing so with the same insight, integrity and appreciation you show when you cover the Timberwolves. Zahui B. is amazing; talk about going on a conditioning program! I have high hopes for this team this year and next. Fortunately, some of the women's teams are doing much better than the men's teams, and I commend them to people who are suffering through the doldrums (as I am) with the Wolves and the Wild.

appreciate the feedback

Rebecca--
Weird and sad that you have to thank me for not skimming on coverage of Lady Gophs.

After a quarter-century of coverage, I'll always be partial to chronicling the Wolves. But the glorious game of basketball is fun to analyze, especially when played well with a compelling storyline. I would cover the Lynx except for the fact that it occurs in the NBA offseason and I need time away from hoops to recharge and concentrate on other things I enjoy writing about. The Lady Gophs provided (and may still provide, later this season) a nice chance to watch a different but no less intriguing brand of hoops.

Thanks for reading

Yess...

Until the Lynx return, the women Gophers are the best show in town.

Excellent! - Thank you

Britt I'm surprised and happy you took the time to cover this team. I wish they were on TV more. Women's basketball is such a Team sport (intentional capital B). This is easily the best they've been since Whalen was here.

I think getting Stollings was a real blessing. Borton used up her welcome here years ago and only really had success with the players that were here when she got here. It was a blessing of sorts to lose Banham; it really showed what a well rounded team they have and to have her back next year with Zahui B a junior and another year of seasoning for Wagner and others will make this a real contender.

Now could you explain the B in Zahui B? I must have missed that last year in the paper. Triple double last night with either 12 or 15 blocks? Dang.

No clue

Bill--

I have no idea what the B stands for. She is from Sweden, which may provide a clue. I know many Scandinavian cultures hyphenate last names from parental surnames--maybe this is an abbreviation of that.
But I'm just guessing.
And yes, a dozen blocks--without getting in foul trouble--is a good sign indeed for this team. Still worry about the weakness in the zone versus midrange jumpers off of quick guard play however.

Amanda's Full Name

Amanda Zahui Bazoukou.

Her father is from Ivory Coast

Thanks, Hugh

I knew there was some African connection to the story but couldn't remember the details. Still don't understand the shortening to the letter B though, but thanks. Seems like I read that she didn't have a lot of basketball experience before she came here. She has up'd her game her this year, I think.

Background on Zahui B.

This should answer most of your questions, Bill. From last season:

http://www.startribune.com/sports/gophers/239781931.html

good link

Thanks Pat.

For those unaware, in addition to providing beat coverage of the Lynx and assorted sports stories for Minnpost, Pat recently wrote a nice profile of the Lady Gophers for the New York Times.

Link here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/sports/ncaabasketball/gophers-lose-a-l...

Lady Gophers?

Is the men's team called the Lord Gophers?

Been a long time

since they'd qualify as lords.

Could be worse

Beats "Hoosiers"

Not the Lady Gophers nor Lords/Gentleman Gophers

Enjoyed the article, but was the team ever known as the Lady Gophers?

Lady Gophers

I may not like it, but it is very common for TV analysts to refer to the women's team of universities as the "Lady" Whatevers. I find it patronizing and annoying, but it certainly didn't originate on this blog.

lesson learned

I'm old enough to have heard peers who are longtime fans of the team refer to squad as "Lady Gophers." Totally understand why it would seem condescending and will stop using that phrase.

Thanks for the pick-up. Reminds me of the time a year or two ago when I used the word "Oriental" in reference to someone of Asian descent. A younger friend drove it home for me by likening that phrase to the word "colored" in reference African Americans back in the day.