Minnesota wins third straight game

Rachel Banham scored 19 points in the victory over the rival Badgers.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham looks for a pass on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, against North Dakota.

Daily File Photo, Amanda Snyder

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham looks for a pass on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, against North Dakota.

Jack Satzinger

The Gophers haven’t won three straight games since Thanksgiving break, but they have plenty to be thankful for after a weaker stretch of conference play has resulted in three consecutive wins.

Minnesota (16-9, 5-6 Big Ten) topped Wisconsin (10-14, 3-9) 63-50 on Wednesday night — its second win over the border rival this season. The Gophers started the conference season with a 2-6 record but have now jumped up to seventh place in the Big Ten.

“We started off tough because we played two of the tough teams that are at the top of the league right now,” head coach Pam Borton said. “Our kids are getting tougher, and we’re finishing games.”

A big reason for those victories has been keeping the ball in Rachel Banham’s hands.

The junior leads the Big Ten in scoring but has found a new role at point guard, with Shayne Mullaney out due to concussion-like symptoms.

“I’ve been focusing on [distributing] a little bit more because I can score, but I need to get other people the ball,” Banham said. “Now people are double-teaming me and triple-teaming me, so I have to be able to see them more.”

Banham, who led the Gophers with 19 points against the Badgers, has lately flashed an ability to run games at point guard. She’s picking her spots and scoring while also getting open teammates involved.

Still, it’s taking a toll on arguably the Big Ten’s top player because she’s on the court for the whole game.

“She’s got the ball in her hands for 40 minutes,” Borton said. “She was absolutely exhausted in the last four or five minutes of the game.”

Borton said when Mullaney is in the lineup, she takes pressure off Banham because then Banham doesn’t have to be the primary ball-handler.

Mullaney, however, is no longer the only player with injury issues.

Jackie Johnson went down with an apparent left-knee injury in the game, and Stabresa McDaniel didn’t play after getting hit hard by a screen.

Borton said the team was being protective with McDaniel, who may have been exhibiting concussion-like symptoms.

There aren’t any walk-ons on the team this season, so the Gophers have only 10 players on the roster. Injuries to three of them could spell trouble.

“Whenever you lose three kids that are playing a lot, that is concerning,” Borton said, adding that she hopes to get all three players back soon.

Banham is used to playing a full 40 minutes, but her teammates are not. They might have to unless the Gophers get more players back before Saturday’s game at Northwestern.

Minnesota has hit its stride over the last three games and is firmly back in the conversation for an NCAA tournament bid. Still, it will find wins hard to come by if injuries persist.

“I think our team’s starting to play better and head towards our peak a little bit,” Banham said. “There are definitely things we can get better at, but these three wins showed that our team has gotten better.”