Freshmen seeing big minutes as Big Ten play continues

Shayne Mullaney, Mikayla Bailey and Kayla Hirt have played significant minutes lately.

Minnesota guard Shayne Mullaney fights past Nebraska guard Teara Laudermill on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Image by Jaak Jensen, Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Shayne Mullaney fights past Nebraska guard Tear’a Laudermill on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, at Williams Arena.

by Samuel Gordon

Three freshmen are playing a significant number of minutes for the Gophers women’s basketball team.

But head coach Pam Borton said that’s not necessarily a good thing — especially as the Big Ten season intensifies.

Guards Shayne Mullaney and Mikayla Bailey and forward Kayla Hirt — all first-year players — were on the court together at points during Minnesota’s 84-63 loss to Nebraska on Sunday.

And though each player has chipped in with key contributions this season, Borton said she’d prefer to play one at a time.

“We’ve got to try and keep our experienced kids on the floor and out of foul trouble,” she said.

Nebraska did that Sunday, and only one Cornhuskers freshman saw the floor.

“I don’t think a lot of other Big Ten teams have freshmen out on the floor right now,” Borton said. “If they do, they have one player, and she was maybe a top player coming out of high school.”

Mullaney, a combo guard, has started the past 12 games and ranks third on the team in minutes per game (27.9).

At times, she’ll assume ball-handling duties, which allows star guard Rachel Banham to play off the ball and focus more on scoring.

“It was my goal to play a lot. I wasn’t expecting to start,” Mullaney said. “Aim high and have big goals. It’s been a lot of fun.”

She was thrust into the lineup when Bailey, who started the first seven games at the off-guard position, fell ill with mononucleosis.

The debilitating illness kept Bailey, a good spot-up shooter and one of the team’s top on-ball defenders, out for nearly a month.

She’s been coming off the bench as she gradually works her way back into game shape.

“I’ve never dealt with something like this before,” Bailey said of her illness. “I couldn’t condition. I couldn’t shoot. I couldn’t do anything.”

Bailey said coming off the bench has been difficult in the sense that she sees different minutes every game.

Hirt hasn’t had to make any adjustments. She’s been coming off the bench all season.

In the sixth-man role, Hirt is fourth on the team in scoring with 7.3 points per game. Twice this season, she’s been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

“I knew Kayla would get out there, and hopefully one of our other freshmen would step up,” Borton said. “They’ve just got to keep learning and take advantage of every opportunity they get in games.”

Minnesota’s young guns will have that chance Thursday when the Gophers play at No. 8 Penn State.

Mullaney said to this point Big Ten basketball hasn’t been as “tough as I thought,” though she acknowledged the distinguishable difference in the speed of the game compared to high school.

Minnesota’s veterans, however, are quite familiar with Penn State’s personnel.

The Nittany Lions knocked the Gophers out of the Big Ten tournament last year in a 78-74 thriller.

“We match up well, especially with our post players,” Borton said. “I think it gives [our team] a lot of confidence.

“We’re on the road. We’ll have to play extremely well to have an opportunity to win.”