Gophers women’s squad has had moments, but Big Ten giants await

The Gophers women's basketball team finished up the nonconference portion of its schedule a week ago with a 59-48 victory over Eastern Illinois in a game that again showed a couple of traits of this young group:

Their capacity to come back when down, and the room for improvement that remains as the team heads back into Big Ten Conference play at 16th-ranked Maryland at 1 p.m. Friday.

"We've learned that we're really tough,'' said coach Lindsay Whalen, who missed the Eastern Illinois game while recovering from COVID-19. "We play extremely hard. There is no quit. But there are steps we need to take against Power Five teams. And now we're going to have that every night.''

The starting lineup of Mara Braun, Amaya Battle, Katie Borowicz, Mallory Heyer and Rose Micheaux — three true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore — average 19 years, four months and 23 days old, among the youngest in the nation.

With that inexperience, while compiling an 8-5 record (1-1 in the Big Ten), there have been ups and downs and there have been rallies.

In a victory over Lehigh, the Gophers rallied from down eight by outscoring the Mountain Hawks 20-10 over the final three minutes and 55 seconds. Down 10 early in the fourth and down seven with 2:58 left vs. Penn State, the Gophers outscored the Lions 14-7 over the rest of regulation to force overtime, eventually winning in two OTs. Against Eastern Illinois, the Gophers shot 7-for-38 while being outscored 29-17 over the second and third quarters. Then Minnesota went 11-for-12 in a 23-6 fourth-quarter run.

Showing that grit is impressive. But it's not a winning formula for Big Ten play, where lulls like the one the Gophers had against Eastern Illinois would put them in a hole too deep.

"I feel another step needs to be taken,'' Borowicz said. "But we are capable of that step. It's the small things. Each person has to have one less turnover, one more pass instead of a forced shot. These are all controllables that we can fix. But we do have to take a step forward.''

It won't be easy against a Maryland team that, after going three rounds deep in the NCAA tournament last year, had its rotation almost completely redone by the transfer portal. But, under former Gophers coach Brenda Frese, the Terrapins still are athletic and long, specializing in pressure defense and transition offense. The Gophers will need to protect the ball and get back on defense.

The Gophers are coming off a much-needed weeklong holiday break, which came after playing three games in six days. Whalen said her team was looking tired at the end of that stretch, but it returned strongly to practice.

It will be a difficult return to conference play, with a home game with undefeated and third-ranked Ohio State scheduled for next week. Before the season started, the Gophers talked about their goal of making the NCAA tournament. To do that they'll need to get some wins against ranked teams.

"We'll need to knock off some good teams,'' Battle said. "But the beauty of it is the pressure is not on us. People don't expect us to come out and win these games. So the pressure is on that team. Our job is to keep pushing. We might get some of them.''

To do so will require more consistent play, especially on offense.

"We know those days are over where we can lollygag in the beginning and then turn it on,'' Battle said. "We have to keep it on the whole game, start to finish.''