In her final years with the Minnesota Lynx, when Lindsay Whalen stopped playing overseas, she occasionally dropped by the University of Minnesota to scrimmage with the Gopher women. The benefits flowed both ways. Whalen got a spirited workout against younger legs. And the Gophers picked up pointers from a WNBA great who happened to be the program’s most prominent graduate.
So when the Gophers hired Whalen as head coach last spring to replace Marlene Stollings, who left for Texas Tech, she already knew a thing or two about the players she inherited. But not everything. It took time for Whalen to discover something she hadn’t noticed before, something that proved vital to her team’s success: Junior forward Taiye Bello’s relentless drive to grab every rebound in sight.
“It was probably the first couple of weeks of practice when I was just like, wow, she really has a talent, and she’s really special at rebounding,” Whalen said before practice earlier this week.
“The first couple of weeks you’re putting in new offenses, trying to put in your system. Maybe there’s a couple of days where it’s kind of choppy. We would scrimmage, and (the first team) would still come out ahead because she had so many offensive rebounds. She cleaned everything up.”
Bello opened the season with three consecutive double-doubles and hasn’t let up. Through Wednesday, the 6-foot-2 Bello stood tied with Iowa All-American Megan Gustafson for the Big Ten Conference lead in total rebounds (307) and rebounds per game (12.8), both fourth-best in Division 1. And nationally, her 125 offensive rebounds trailed only Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan (129), a likely top-five pick in the upcoming WNBA draft.
”You can’t stop heart.” Whalen said. “I played with the greatest rebounder ever in Rebekkah Brunson. Taiye has all the skills and all the same heart that Rebekkah has. She’s just more determined than everybody out there.”
The comparison to Brunson, the Lynx great and WNBA’s career rebounding leader, is humbling praise for Bello, who averages 9.8 points per game. “Try not to disappoint,” Bello said. “That’s all I can do.” Bello said she met Brunson when the Lynx practiced at Williams Arena in the 2017 WNBA playoffs, but wasn’t bold enough to say much beyond hello. “I wish I had her number, but I don’t,” Bello said.
Last season Bello showed flashes of rebounding prowess off the bench for the Gophers, and her development has been one of the most impressive features of Whalen’s up-and-down first season as a coach.
With four games left in the regular season, the 18-7 Gophers probably need 20 victories, a strong run in the Big Ten Conference Tournament and another signature upset to make the 64-team NCAA Tournament. Before Thursday night’s 65-45 victory at Purdue, Minnesota ranked 112th in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a formula the NCAA Selection Committee uses to pick the field.
The Gophers began the season 12-0, their best start since their 2003-04 Final Four run in Whalen’s senior year, and spent ten weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The first 11 victories came in non-conference play, when the Gophers faced only one ranked team, No. 12 Syracuse.
But after beating Wisconsin in their the Big Ten opener, the Gophers lost four straight and seven of eight in the conference, exposing a lack of depth and shaky perimeter shooting. Losing forward Gadiva Hubbard to preseason foot surgery cost the Gophers a valued starter, and Whalen called Hubbard “a longshot” to return this season.
So Whalen shifted to a smaller, three-guard lineup, starting junior wing Irene Garrido Perez instead of senior center Annalese Lamke. Garrido Perez’s shooting range spread out defenses, creating more room for guards Kenisha Bell and Jasmine Brunson and forward Destiny Pitts to operate. The Gophers responded with five consecutive victories, the biggest a 60-46 upset of 17th-ranked Rutgers, the Big Ten Conference leader, at Williams Arena.
The fifth victory came Thursday night, when the Gophers held Purdue to two points and no baskets in the fourth quarter to win going away, evening their conference record at 7-7. Next up: Penn State at home Sunday afternoon.
“We felt were were close, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time when we were 2-7 (in the conference),” Whalen said. “We felt we were two possessions a half away from being able to come out with some of these wins. A lot of it was, attention to detail, hustle plays here and there, not forgetting a defensive assignment. We felt like if we were really able to focus on those things and not have those mistakes, we could start winning some of those games.”
Whalen leans heavily on her starters. Five players have gone the full 40 minutes at least once, with Pitts and Brunson logging 45 (including overtime) in last Sunday’s 73-64 victory over Northwestern. Bello went 44 minutes that day, and twice played 40 — progress for a willowy forward who started only three games last season in Stallings’ push-the-pace offense.
Bello and her fraternal twin sister, Kehinde, a Gophers reserve, grew up in a basketball family. Their older brother Seni Lawal played collegiately at Oakland University and Wayne State, went on to a pro career overseas and represented Nigeria at the 2016 Olympics. The summer between eighth and ninth grade, Bello said Seni helped her polish her fundamentals to prepare for high school, where she and Kehinde starred for Southfield-Lathrup High near Detroit. Both signed with the Gophers.
Last summer, determined to carve out more playing time, Bello worked even harder on her rebounding. She recruited two rugged Gophers male practice players to challenge her in drills. “She was trying to get boards against guys who were taller than her and had more bounce than her,” Bell said. “She was doing drills where she had to get the ball in the air, not let it touch the ground.”
Pitts, also from greater Detroit, has known the Bellos since high school. She rooms with the Bellos and Garrido Perez. “With Taiye, I always knew she was capable of it,” Pitts said. “I’d say her coming out party started this summer. Just the work she put in, she was always willing to get in the gym. Hey, want to go and work on some pick and roll type stuff? The work she’s put in the summer to develop her game showed a lot this year.
“She just has a knack for the ball in rebounding. A lot of teams probably scout her and say, ‘Just rebound the ball.’ Probably a lot easier said than done. You come out here and try to box her out.”
Bello more than doubled her rebounding average from last year, making her one of the most improved players in the Big Ten. Her nine double-doubles included a career-high 21 rebounds against Rutgers, tied for the best in the conference this season and the most by a Gopher since Amanda Zahui B., a WNBA first-round pick, pulled 22 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament against DePaul. Ten times this season Bello grabbed at least 15 rebounds. Her best game? Twenty points and 18 rebounds (10 offensive) against Syracuse, now ranked No. 16, on Nov. 29.
Apparently, Bello isn’t only relentless about rebounding. Pitts said anyone who brings takeout into their apartment better buy enough for Bello, too. Bello often reciprocates by cooking for the group.
“You know what you’re going to get with Taiye, you know what I’m saying?” Pitts said playfully, her voice quickening. “You come to your room, bring some snacks, maybe you want them for yourself, but Taiye’s going to eat them for sure. Nothing is just yours in that apartment with Taiye. And Kehinde, too. Just like she finds the rebound, she finds the food.”
Whalen will settle for the rebounding.