Let’s be perfectly clear from the start — this and all subsequent columns are March Madness cliché-free. We won’t be talking about dancing or getting tickets punched here.
The Gophers women basketball team plays Thursday in the 2014 Big Ten women’s tournament in Indianapolis — they face 11th-seeded Wisconsin at approximately 8 pm local time.
Minnesota (19-11, 8-8 Big Ten) as the sixth seed goes into Indy on a modest two-game winning streak, but more importantly, especially for further post-season considerations, the Gophers have won seven of their last 11 contests. Although the team finished with a positive conference record for the first time since 2009, from now on U of M’s “second season” record must stay above .500.
Sunday’s 17-point win over Ohio State “is good enough” for the Gophers to get serious NCAA consideration, Coach Pam Borton told the MSR afterwards. The latest RPI report, which is what the selection committee people look at during their deliberations, has Minnesota in the top 40 (number 37) and 21st nationally in strength of schedule.
The Gophers are one of eight Big Ten teams among the top 64 teams in the RPI report: “You don’t leave a team in the 30s out of the tournament,” said Borton. “We are in great shape.”
Sunday also was Senior Day as the team’s two seniors, center Micaëlla Riché and guard Sari Noga, were recognized for their four-year contributions after the game. Both players were surrounded by family and friends, and it was at times emotional for the two as they shared their thoughts to the crowd who stayed after the game.
Originally slated as a starter, Riché struggled at the power forward spot and eventually was replaced in the lineup — the 6’-2” forward scored six points off the bench in 26 minutes.
“It has been a test of character,” she admitted afterwards. “I am so blessed being here. I’m definitely honored to be a Gopher.”
Said Borton of Riché, “She was a pretty mature kid when she came in. Just really watching Micaella grow from a freshman to where she is now — physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially and mentally — has been like a whirlwind at times, but she’s leaving as a better person and a very strong, confident young woman.”
The 5’-10” Noga improved her game during conference play this season, averaging over nine points a game — she hit her average in a team-high 38 minutes Sunday.
“Sari is one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached,” said her coach. “She is the glue to our team. She is why we are in the position we are right now. Her leadership is irreplaceable.”
When asked about her team’s post-season chances, Borton told the MSR, “There hasn’t been one thing that we haven’t seen this year. I think winning a Big Ten game is tougher than winning a non-conference game or a NCAA tournament game. I think we’ve been battle tested.
“I think this league has prepared us for everything,” she continued. “We’ve gone through a lot this year as a team as far as roles changing, and we lost our point guard Shayne Mullaney being out halfway through the season. The kids have adjusted, and we figured things out and accepted their roles.
“Our chemistry on and off the court couldn’t be better,” said the coach. “That’s why we are winning games.”
“I’m excited,” added guard Rachel Banham. “I think we all feel real good.”
Gopher/Big Ten notes
Banham became the first Gopher since Carol Ann Shudlick in 1993 to lead the Big Ten in scoring (league-only contests). The 5’-9” junior posted a league-high 19 games of 20 or more points — she had 27 points on Sunday and leads all conference scorers with five 30-point games. She surpassed Linda Roberts for fourth on the school’s career scoring list.
Redshirt freshman center Amanda Zahui B.’s 14th double-double on Sunday (14 points, 18 rebounds) ranks her 36th nationally. The six-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week player became the first Gopher to lead the conference in rebounding since Janel McCarville in 2005.
Coquese Washington became the first Black coach to win three straight regular season crowns as her top-seeded Penn State squad last weekend claimed a share of this year’s league championship with second-seeded Michigan State, who clinched a share of the regular season crown after defeating Indiana on Sunday.
The tournament winner, however, gets the automatic NCAA bid.
March madness on ice
The Minnesota women’s hockey team (34-1-1) won their 14th straight game, extending its unbeaten streak to 22 games last Saturday, and now advances to the WCHA Final Face-Off this weekend in Bemidji, Minn.
March madness on track
Senior Alena Brooks last weekend became the school’s first indoor Big Ten champion since 2011 by finishing first in the 600-meter dash. Her time of 1:26.73 also was a new Minnesota indoor record as well and helped the Gophers to an overall fourth place finish — Penn State finished atop, followed by Michigan and Nebraska.
Brooks was one of three Gophers to earn all Big Ten honors for their performances last weekend. The NCAA indoor championships are at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque March 14-15.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com