Long homestand gives Gophers chance to prove toughness

Minnesota plays its first of five consecutive home games Wednesday.

Minnesota forward Kati Loberg tries to retrieve the ball during a game against Virginia on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, at Williams Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota forward Kati Loberg tries to retrieve the ball during a game against Virginia on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, at Williams Arena.

Samuel Gordon

Rachel Banham’s message Tuesday was simple.

“Toughness,” she said. “We’ve got to want it more than everyone else.”

The Gophers women’s basketball team lacked toughness last week against its toughest two opponents to date — Virginia and No. 20 Kansas. Those games resulted in Minnesota’s first back-to-back losses of the season.

Minnesota has five-straight home games — its longest homestand of the season — against mid-major foes to establish some toughness before the Big Ten season starts.

The Gophers will open the homestand against Denver on Wednesday.

“A lot of your weaknesses are exposed at this time of the year,” head coach Pam Borton said, referring to the two losses. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves.”

Borton said the Gophers’ trip to Kansas was a great learning experience, and the back-to-back losses were a positive.

“You get better playing these two games than you do against two other teams that you’re blowing out by 30 points,” she said.

Minnesota has also struggled to keep its best players on the floor.

Forward/center Micaëlla Riché, who averaged 15 points and eight rebounds in the team’s first seven games, was practically nonexistent in the past two games.

She had two points and four rebounds in 15 minutes before fouling out against Virginia. And while she didn’t foul out against Kansas, foul trouble limited her to six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes.

“[Riché] hasn’t been playing her best,” said Banham, who leads her team with 19.2 points per game. “We need the whole team to show up.”

Foul trouble also plagued forward Kionna Kellogg against the Jayhawks. She scored two points in 14 minutes.

“Micaëlla’s got to stay on the floor. Kionna’s got to stay on the floor,” Borton said. “When they’re not on the floor, we’re not as good.”

If they are on the floor, the Gophers will stand a better chance against Denver.

After opening the season 0-3, the Pioneers have won their past three games, most recently beating Oregon in Eugene, Ore. Denver beat Minnesota 72-63 last season.

Sophomore guard and Eden Prairie native Morgan Van Riper-Rose averages 15.2 points a game, tops on the team.

“I don’t think we’re taking Denver lightly at all,” Borton said. “We’ve got to play as well, if not better, than we did the last three games.”

A win over the Pioneers could set the tone for the remainder of the nonconference season.

“Now we need to take it seriously and get these wins before Big Ten [play] starts,” Banham said. “We have a lot of motivation.”

Bailey still out

Freshman guard Mikayla Bailey has missed the past two games with mononucleosis. Borton said she’ll be out at least another week.

Shayne Mullaney, another freshman, has started the past two games in Bailey’s place.