Borton’s tinkering leads women’s hoops to best season

Aaron Blake

With 37.9 seconds remaining in Sunday’s West regional semifinal matchup between Minnesota and Texas, senior guard Lindsay Lieser slowly emerged from the bench.

But the Gopher women’s all-time leading three-point shooter and long-time starter wasn’t entering the game to rally her team from beyond the arc. The game and season were already lost, and it was the first action Lieser saw in the game.

This changing of the guards put into effect by coach Pam Borton in her first year at Minnesota is just one example of how she altered things despite having a team already on the rise.

“We went through a lot of bumps in the road this season as far as us getting to know each other,” Borton said. “There were differences concerning how we did things as coaches from last year.

“But we really came together as a team and coaching staff – probably even more than I thought we would for the first season, to be honest with you.”

In the end, messing with a good thing translated into an even better thing. The Gophers advanced farther than they ever have before in losing to the Longhorns in the Sweet 16. They also broke one of the longest home winning streaks in the country last week in the process, ending Stanford’s 26-game Maples Pavilion run in the second round.

“We look back on a season like this, and we did a lot of things,” All-American Lindsay Whalen said. “We took just another step in what we’re trying to do at Minnesota in turning it into an elite program.”

The way the program reached this new plateau came with changes that even involved Whalen – last year’s Big Ten player of the year.

Almost all Whalen’s statistics dropped off from her best-in-conference season – except assists – as the team got unexpectedly large contributions from a pair of seniors.

Center Kim Prince started almost every nonconference game in place of 2001-02 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Janel McCarville, and showed improved post play in the process.

In her final game as a Gopher, Prince actually led the team with 15 points and was the reason Minnesota kept close at times.

Keeping McCarville on the bench in favor of Prince caused some to shake their heads early. But Minnesota’s unblemished nonconference record spoke for itself.

Another senior, forward Corrin Von Wald, was a focal point on both the offensive and defensive ends. Shooting an astounding 60.9 percent from three-point range during the regular season, Von Wald was the first option when Borton needed a dead-eye shooter and also a defensive stopper.

“(Corrin) has really learned how to become a leader this year,” Borton said. “It will be hard to replace her because she does everything out there. She’s our best all-around player on the team.”

Von Wald led the team as it began learning Borton’s defensive philosophies from day one. Before her team even played a game, Borton made it known to everyone that last season’s offense-first style would not bring the team to that next level.

A true freshman and a true point guard, Shannon Schonrock provided in-your-shorts defense while filling in admirably for Lieser. After winning the job with her performances in practice, she gave Borton the distributor and defensive spark the coach wanted from her position.

The Gophers scored a program-record 116 points in their first regular season tilt and won for a good portion of the season in much the same manner as it did the previous season.

Eventually, though, the Gophers started to buy into and begin to perfect Borton’s system down the stretch. This culminated in efforts that held first-round opponent Tulane to 48 points and the Cardinal to one of its lowest outputs of the season at 56 points.

Overall, this is what the third Gophers coach in three years will likely be remembered for this season – the defensive emphasis she brought to a team which found prior success on the other end of the floor.

“I felt extremely happy that we made it to the Sweet 16,” Borton said. “We wanted to take this program one step farther than last year. Now we want to build on this and build a tradition at Minnesota.”

And if Borton has anything to say about it, such tradition will be built on the type of defense that brought this season’s version of the Gophers to heights not yet reached in the team’s 30-year history.

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