Streaking women’s hoops set for Indy

by Aaron Blake

A self-assured person herself, All-American Lindsay Whalen has noticed a kind of quiet confidence emanating from Minnesota’s women’s basketball team concerning this weekend’s Big Ten tournament.

After closing out the Big Ten season on a seven-game win streak and setting a team record for victories in a season, the Gophers still have an obstacle to overcome in the form of the tournament.

Last year’s Gophers experienced a rocky close to the regular season in which they lost two of their final three conference games. They then traveled to Indianapolis and promptly lost their first game of the Big Ten tournament to a team they had beaten twice already in sixth-seeded Wisconsin.

The second-seeded Gophers (23-4, 12-4 Big Ten) return to Indianapolis this year looking to make some strides in the postseason. They won’t know their opponent until late Thursday though, as No. 7 Iowa and No. 10 Northwestern battle it out on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the first round.

Both of Minnesota’s possible opponents, as it happens, have also fallen victim to the Gophers twice this season.

“It’s hard to beat a team three times,” Minnesota coach Pam Borton said. “But I think we’re playing very good basketball right now, and I think this team is more focused than last year.”

Last season’s team missed out on an opportunity to earn a top-four seed and host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. This season’s team has no such opportunity as the NCAA has gone to predetermined sites.

Nevertheless, Borton sees the Big Ten tournament as the second of three seasons for her team. She is intent on her team playing to win the tournament and letting the NCAA seeding fall in place.

Most important, though, is the theme of momentum she has been emphasizing for the past several weeks.

In the meantime, her team has been accumulating it in the form of the win streak.

During this streak, the Gophers have made victims out of both Northwestern (8-19, 3-13) and Iowa (14-13, 6-10) on their home floors.

Without center Janel McCarville, Minnesota was forced to overcome an 18-point deficit to beat the Wildcats 64-61 in Evanston, Ill. Eleven days prior, the Gophers gutted out a tight 67-56 victory over the same team.

Minnesota has experienced surprisingly less trouble with the Hawkeyes. Blowing them out by almost 40 points on Jan. 12 at Williams Arena, the Gophers then traveled to Iowa City on Feb. 20 and handled Iowa 77-60.

If the Gophers get past the winner of Thursday’s 7-10 game, they will face No. 3 Purdue, No. 6 Illinois or No. 10 Michigan in the semifinals Sunday.

Worrying about the semifinals is a burden the Gophers would like to have this year, as the team has never reached them in the eight years since the Big Ten tournament was reinstated in its current format.

In fact, the team’s bye into the quarterfinals will mark only the third time Minnesota has gone beyond the first round, which is reserved for the sixth to 11th seeds.

So if the Gophers have no other motivation, it will be to better their 1-9 all-time Big Ten tournament mark.

“Last year’s first game left a bitter taste in our mouths,” senior captain Corrin Von Wald said. “It’s going to be huge for us to win that first game. Last year we were looking forward to the NCAAs and it bit us in the butt.”

Big Ten yearly awards

The Big Ten announced its yearly awards Tuesday, with Whalen failing to repeat as conference player of the year.

The acclaim went to Penn State junior Kelly Mazzante, who led the Big Ten in scoring for the third straight year with 22.2 points per game in conference action.

Despite finishing 15th in rebounding and second in assists, Whalen was overlooked.

“(Mazzante) had a great year and her team won the Big Ten title outright,” Whalen said. “It’s only fair that its marquee player wins.”

Whalen was the only other unanimous selection to both the coaches’ and media’s all-Big Ten first teams.

Last season’s Freshman of the Year McCarville was a media first-team and coaches’ second-team selection while Von Wald garnered third-team honors from both voting bodies.

Penn State’s Rene Portland beat out Borton for coach of the year while Michigan State’s Liz Shimek and Lindsay Bowen each won freshman of the year honors from the media and coaches, respectively.