Women’s hoops harbors .500 hopes

by Sarah Mitchell

Riding a five-game losing streak, it’s a wonder the Minnesota women’s basketball team is just two games back of .500. Consistently sloppy play makes it hard to believe Minnesota (7-9 overall, 1-5 Big Ten) is so close to mediocrity.
But it is.
By the end of the weekend, the Big Ten basement-dwelling Gophers could post this mark and even vie for a spot in the middle of the standings. The team looks to take its first step towards improvement tonight, hosting a similarly troubled Northwestern (5-10, 2-3) team in game one of a three-game homestand.
“It’s huge for both of us. I’d be lying if I told you otherwise,” Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “I think both of us are in the same boat.”
Both teams flounder in the bottom half of every statistical category in the Big Ten. Minnesota’s offense (50.8 ppg) ranks last in the Big Ten’s scoring race while Iowa’s scoring defense (74.4 ppg) is at the bottom. Meanwhile, both the Gophers’ scoring defense (71.3 ppg) and the Wildcats’ scoring offense (54.6 ppg) are ninth in the conference.
Averaging just 50.8 points per game has dragged the Gophers to their last-place standing. To make matters worse, the team’s most productive players have cooled off. Most noticeably has been a drop-off from freshman guard Lindsay Lieser.
Lieser is the team’s leading scorer (10.8 ppg), but has recently shown reluctance to take shots. Sophomore guard Cassie VanderHeyden attributed the caution to Lieser’s first taste of conference competition.
“I remember last year when I had to do that and it wasn’t fun,” VanderHeyden said. “It’s just the whole transition.”
With a lack of scoring, the Gophers have also been plagued by turnovers. Minnesota is at the bottom of the Big Ten with 368 turnovers — 80 more than league-leading Penn State. Most of those have been unforced.
“We just don’t move as well. I don’t know why,” VanderHeyden said. “We find ourselves standing around a lot and you can’t get up and get a shot up when you’re just standing.”
The Wildcats are having similar problems. Tied with three other teams for fifth in the Big Ten standings, Northwestern is on a two-game losing skid.
In her first year at Northwestern, coach June Olkowski said she has been working on earning trust and the team’s Achilles heel — shooting from the foul line.
“With a young club you take two steps forward and three steps back,” Olkowski said. “I’m hoping this week is the week we take two more steps forward.”
So both coaches take the floor tonight looking for progress. One team will walk away with a minor breakthrough and the other has to settle with the theory that they are just a young team.
Even if that’s been the case for a while.
“To come in against another team just trying to do the same thing is crucial,” Littlejohn said. “I think all the players realize we have to take this opportunity (today) and try to capitalize on it. They realize that we’re in the same situation.”

Sarah Mitchell covers women’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected].