Women’s basketball ready to charge through final stretch

Aaron Blake

Minnesota women’s basketball center Janel McCarville is excited.

The sophomore and reigning Big Ten freshman of the year can afford to be. After what Gophers coach Pam Borton calls her best performance – 20 points and 17 rebounds in a big 73-50 victory over No. 22 Ohio State – McCarville is looking forward to a late-season push.

“We’re going to go in with our heads down and just knock some people over,” McCarville said.

The 6-foot-2 McCarville and her teammates begin this task Thursday at Iowa (13-10, 5-7 Big Ten) in their quest to improve upon last year’s disappointing stretch run. Despite a couple glaring similarities, such as personnel and ranking, many things are different.

“Last year, everybody was happy to be there,” McCarville said. “It was a new thing. This year, with almost everybody back from last year’s squad, we all have high expectations.”

Sitting at this point last season with the exact same record, the Gophers concluded the season by losing two of four regular-season games, losing in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to Wisconsin, and losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to North Carolina.

This year, Borton sees her team as having a good chance to win out before the Big Ten tournament, and advance further in that as well.

Why?

The Gophers (19-4, 8-4) are peaking. It seems as though McCarville and nearly everything around Borton is better than it has been all season.

She said her defense has played its strongest stretch of three games she has seen. Over its past five, the Big Ten’s worst defensive team in 2002 has allowed an average of only 57.8 points per game.

A half-court trap and increased pressure manifested themselves into an 18-point comeback at Northwestern and the domination of a top-25 team against Ohio State.

“We’ve always had (the trap) in our back pocket, but I didn’t think we were very good at it,” Borton said. “At Northwestern we had to use it because we were down by 18, and I felt like using it against Ohio State on a freshman point guard could disrupt her a little bit.”

While the Gophers’ trap gave Kim Wilburn problems, Borton’s freshman point guard – Shannon Schonrock – registered a career-high eight assists.

The other freshman Shannon, Bolden, has started to provide more and more minutes as the season has gone on as well.

The pair has combined to play an average of 46 minutes in the past three games. Their presence bolsters an already formidable lineup, one that includes all the essential pieces of last year’s stretch run.

Corrin Von Wald, like McCarville, was one of these pieces. This year, she’s added to her game and has become one of the top five scorers in Big Ten play at 16.9 points per game.

Von Wald hit all nine of her three-point field goal attempts last week and averaged 23.5 points to win her second Big Ten player of the week award this season.

Overall, the senior captain has hit an astounding 66.7 percent (30-for-45) of her three-pointers this year.

“If you would have told me at the beginning of the year I would be averaging a couple threes a game, I probably would have laughed,” Von Wald said. “But my shot has really started to develop this year, and now I look for it.”

Despite all this momentum in the Gophers’ favor – which should help them to avoid disappointment – one thing is decidedly against them.

Borton acknowledges how teams know Minnesota isn’t just a one-season wonder anymore and are shooting for the Gophers.

Or at least she knows Iowa is.

“We’re going to walk into the lion’s den,” Borton said. “They just beat Penn State, and after we blew them out of the gym last time (Jan. 12 at Williams Arena), it’s going to be a different ball game.

“They’ve circled this day on their calendars.”

And the Gophers will continually circle every upcoming date,

starting with the Hawkeyes, knowing they need it to avoid last year’s type of finale.

Aaron Blake covers women’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]