Gopher hoopsters’ narrow focus to ‘survive and advance’

Coach Lindsey Whalen confers with guards Destiny Pitts (far left) and Kenisha Bell. // Courtesy of Twitter

College sport’s busiest time starts this week. “This is the best time of the year,” Minnesota first-year Head Coach Lindsay Whalen said during Monday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference with reporters, including the MSR. The two-hour media call previewed this week’s conference tournament in Indianapolis.

Minnesota (20-9) plays 10th-seeded Indiana (19-11) Thursday in the third of four scheduled quarterfinals contests. The seventh-seeded Gophers, after a 12-0 start that included the conference opening win over Wisconsin, then fell to 2-8 in league play, winning only once in January.

But February proved better as Minnesota became one of the nation’s hottest clubs (7-2), including a win over third-seeded Rutgers. Whalen became only the fourth Gopher coach to finish Big Ten play at .500 or better (8-8) in her first season.

The coach explained, “We’re proud of what we were able to do. We didn’t quit.”

Once upon a time, winning 20 games would be a certainty for the NCAAs, but no longer. As a result, Minnesota’s 2018-19 overall record might not be enough to impress the NCAA selection committee because their RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) rankings are far behind five Big Ten teams whose RPIs are in the top 50, and two other clubs among the top 75.

The Gophers will have to win four games this week in Indianapolis — in other words, win the Big Ten tourney and the automatic bid — to assure them a spot in the NCAAs later this month.

When a reporter asked her if she’s been keeping up with all the bracketology jazz, Coach Whalen responded, “You can’t be focused on that. You have to be focused on your next opponent.” Instead, she and her players, along with their fellow Big Ten compatriots, are now in survive and advance mode.

“It is so much parity, competitiveness in every game,” Penn State Coach Coquese Washington said of this season’s Big Ten, which returned this year to an 18-game schedule.

Teammates help Gopher guard Kenisha Bell get up after getting fouled. // Courtesy of Twitter

“We all seem to beat up on each other,” Indiana’s Teri Moren noted. “I don’t think there is [any] bad loss when you are playing any team in the Big Ten.”

On Thursday’s Minnesota-Indiana matchup, the Gophers defeated the Hoosiers in a four-point road win in early February. “It starts there with her,” Moren said of the 6’-1” senior guard Kenisha Bell. “We had a difficult time at our place guarding her. I think Coach [Whalen] has them playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

Bell, the Gophers’ leading scorer (nearly 20 points a game), is one of three unanimous All-Big Ten selections by the coaches. She also made the conference all-defensive team announced on Monday. Destiny Pitts made first team (media) and second team all-conference (coaches), along with junior Taiye Bello (honorable mention) and junior Jasmine Brunson (Big Ten sportsmanship team).

After a January swoon that coincided with the team’s struggles at the time, Pitts, the 5’-10” guard/forward, has been a reckoning force in February. She has scored at least 21 points a game for the past six games and has been shooting over 46 percent from three-point range.

“She has been terrific in the second half of the conference season,” Whalen observed. “She is shooting the ball well. She has been leading our team from everything to practice to shoot-arounds. It is not a surprise that she is playing so well.

“At this time of year, it’s about who is playing well and about players making plays,” Whalen observed about playing in March. “I feel good that we have a couple of guys [Bell and Pitts] playing well and with a lot of confidence. We’ll go in there and see what we can do this weekend.”