For Gophers freshman Braun, the bigger the moment, the better

Nia Holloway's favorite Mara Braun memory — so far:

Nike's 2021 Peach Jam tournament, South Carolina. Teammates on Minnesota's North Tartan AAU team, Holloway and Braun were playing Cal Swish, a team out of California led by Jada Williams, one of the best players in the 2023 recruiting class.

LeBron James was there. Anywhere you were in the gym, you could hear him cheering for Cal Swish.

For a while.

"There was this one play,'' Holloway said. She and Braun are freshmen on the Gophers women's basketball team. "Maya got a steal. She did a behind-the-back dribble to get her defender off her. Then she lobbed it up to me. It was our coolest moment together. In front of LeBron James. And then he got up and started cheering for us.''

Holloway, recovering from left knee surgery, won't play this season. She will rehab while watching the Gophers open the season Monday against Western Illinois at Williams Arena.

Here's what she says Gophers fans can expect to see from Braun: A competitor.

Braun's dad, Chris Braun, says his daughter will run through a brick wall to win. Since she was young, there has been a rule in the Braun household that nobody talks to Mara for 24 hours after a loss.

Holloway has seen it. They competed against each other in high school — Braun for Wayzata, Holloway for Eden Prairie. They played together in AAU. They are friends. But even now, occasionally — like after practice the other day — Braun will bring up a sore subject.

Braun: "Hey Nia, remember when I scored my 1,000th high school point on you?"

Holloway: "That stupid lob pass!"

But seriously: "She wants to win,'' Holloway said. "I mean. She. Wants. To. Win.''

That day in South Carolina, they did. "We ended up blowing them out,'' Braun said, smiling. "And, by the end of it, [James] was cheering for us. Because we were playing team basketball. They were all one-on-one.''

Eager to build

Coach Lindsay Whalen's ninth-ranked 2022 recruiting class included four Minnesotans, all of whom were ranked by various services among the top 100 in the country: Braun, Holloway, Mallory Heyer, Amaya Battle.

Of them, Braun, a 6-0 guard, was ranked 28th by ESPN.

She had options. Among her finalists were Arizona State, Michigan, Oregon State, Maryland, Iowa.

Braun chose to build something rather than join something.

"You talk about winning,'' she said. "It would be something to go to a school that has won, that has had success. But for me, I think it would mean more, and the wins would feel that much better, to stay home and help a program that hasn't had a lot of success. I like the idea of working for it.''

A Minnesota native, Braun is deeply rooted here, sports-wise. Chris Braun remembers hours watching Minnesota sports with Mara. Vikings, Twins, Wild, Gophers. She was with her dad in 2016 when Whalen and the Lynx lost in Game 5 of the WNBA finals at Target Center. A year later they were at Williams Arena when the Lynx won in Game 5. With Williams Arena rocking, Chris turned to his daughter. Wouldn't it be cool to play in here with this place packed?

Yes.

"That's my dream,'' Braun said. "Get more wins, get this place excited, get the fans back.''

Thrives on competition

When Braun was young, maybe second grade, her dad coached her. Sometimes during games he'd have to tell Mara to stop stealing the ball. She did it almost every time. She was all over the place. Finally it was: Let them bring the ball up.

This never really changed. By third grade Braun was already playing up in age.

Always, the intensity. She had to play traveling eighth grade for Wayzata twice, while waiting to join the varsity. The second year, the day after Wayzata High was upset by Minneapolis South in the sectionals, Braun led her team to the eighth grade state title, winning by three over Maple Grove.

In AAU, Braun lost three straight championships, but not a fourth. In her last season, with North Tartan, she scored 29 points in the championship game.

"Mara loves the challenge of a big game,'' Chris Braun said.

Bill Larson is executive director of the North Tartan program. He has seen Braun play against older players and excel, seen her lead teams against elite national competition. He sees a player ready to make a difference as a freshman.

"She's ready for the speed of the game,'' Larson said. "She's a multi-faceted scorer. She is not dependent on others to help her score. She can go off the dribble. She has the jumper, the mid-range, the three-point range. That makes her so much different from most freshmen going in. She's got that vibe about her, that extra drive.''

An off-guard with the ability to initiate the offense, Braun helped Wayzata go 46-6 in her final two seasons.

Unfortunately, Wayzata was in the same conference, the same section, as Hopkins, where Battle played and won two state titles. Braun never beat Hopkins. And it still bugs her, Braun admits.

But even here, a story. Her sophomore year, in the section final, Braun found herself playing Hopkins and matching up with Paige Bueckers, the top recruit in the nation, about to go to UConn. Huge crowd, including Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell.

In an 87-76 Hopkins victory, Bueckers scored 33 points, shot 50%, went 11-for-11 from the line. Braun? She scored 27 and shot 57%. She held her own.

"I was just a sophomore; I had nothing to lose,'' Braun said. "We're not expected to win, but I'm going to show 'em I can stay with her. I wanted to prove something. I think it put my name on the map a little bit. It was pretty cool.''

That season the two teams played three times, In those games, Bueckers scored 87 points, Braun 78.

A goofy side, too

The four freshmen recruits live together and have become close friends. Braun and Battle especially. They do everything together. Eat together, see the trainer together, get to practice early together. They call themselves "Twinums.''

All Battle knew before was the competitor. She didn't know the other side of Braun, who can skew goofy. There will be times when they'll be out walking together and Braun will just bust out singing.

Battle: "We'll be like, 'What are you doing?' "

Braun: "I try to make people laugh."

On the court, all business. In last Sunday's exhibition game against Wisconsin-River Falls, this happened within a minute in the first half: Braun hit a step-back three. Then she pulled up for a three on the break. Then she stole the ball and scored. Eight of her 23 points in seconds.

"You saw it,'' Whalen said. "Her confidence in her shot-making. Yes, it was an exhibition, but it was her first go-around. To come out with that confidence, you cannot teach that."