Turnaround slow in coming

Jim Schortemeyer

INDIANAPOLIS — A 7-20 record isn’t usually considered an improvement. But when it comes to the Minnesota women’s basketball team, almost anything is better than last year’s 4-23 season.
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, the Gophers were a team to beat in the Big Ten. Minnesota went 18-11 in the 1993-94 season and made the NCAA tournament under former coach Linda Hill-MacDonald.
But it didn’t take long for things to sour. In 1995-96 the Gophers went 4-23 and lost all 16 Big Ten games. Hill-MacDonald blamed the bad record on the usual suspects — injuries to key players and players transferring.
With the bad record came another unwanted problem: recruiting. In Hill-MacDonald’s last season, just one of Minnesota’s 20-plus Division I recruits came to the Gophers.
“We certainly had difficulty keeping the top athletes in state,” said Hill-MacDonald, now coach of the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers. “It was very difficult for us.”
Hill-MacDonald didn’t name names, but it seems clear she was partly referring to Kelly and Coco Miller of Rochester.
The twins were recruited hard by Minnesota before they chose Georgia. But it’s tough to blame the Millers for leaving; Georgia is consistently ranked in the top 25.
After two consecutive 4-23 seasons, Hill-MacDonald was shown the door by women’s athletics director Chris Voelz. And while the Gophers have struggled, Hill-MacDonald has landed on her feet in Cleveland. She’s also an assistant for the U.S. National Team.
“It’s been a great experience,” Hill-MacDonald said. “The athletes are very willing to work hard and they progress their game much faster.”
While Hill-MacDonald has seen immediate success in her new job, coach Cheryl Littlejohn hasn’t been so lucky. A turnaround seems imminent, but Littlejohn’s Gophers program is still a work in progress.
While Hill-MacDonald was content to have one player (such as Carol Ann Shudlick) carry her team, Littlejohn has had to change the team’s mentality.
“The bottom line is production,” Littlejohn said. “We can’t depend on one or two people to carry the team.”
But perhaps the biggest change will come next year with the arrival of Natea Motley. Motley is a 6-foot-1 guard from Detroit who is capable of playing all five positions.
She’s not a typical Minnesota recruit. Motley is widely regarded as a top-25 player, and is arguably the best player in Michigan. Littlejohn called Motley “the female Magic Johnson.”
But she comes with a some significant baggage. Motley has a one-year-old baby who will stay with Motley’s older brother when she comes to Minnesota.
Even if Motley proves to be a bust — though players and Littlejohn say she’s for real — the Gophers like their prospects for next season.
“Yes, I’m excited about next year,” Littlejohn said. “I’ve got a whole team coming back.”
While the team has been in the dumps for four seasons, there were finally signs of something positive this year. For stretches they actually looked like a decent team, putting together some strong scoring runs and playing tough defense at times.
“I think it’s the beginning of something good,” senior Mindy Hansen said.
The team’s attitude has remained positive all season, but Littlejohn showed signs of frustration following Minnesota’s loss to Michigan Friday.
“I don’t want to be second,” Littlejohn said. “I don’t like finishing last in the conference.”