Suspensions hurt Gophers’ slim Big Ten chances

by Ryan Schuster

It’s amazing what close games against two of the top three teams in the conference can do for the confidence of a team mired in the midst of an 11-game losing streak and a 4-22 season.
But that was just the case with the Gophers women’s basketball team, at least until seven of the team’s 14 players were suspended earlier in the week from playing in Friday’s first-round Big Ten tournament game against Wisconsin for unspecified team rules violations.
After a 56-53 loss to third-place Michigan and a 71-59 defeat at the hands of Big Ten champion Iowa last weekend at home, players were not only talking about upsetting sixth-seeded and No. 24 Wisconsin on Friday, they and their coach were also talking about winning the whole tournament and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“We’re making progress,” Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said after Sunday’s 12-point loss to Iowa. “We’re going to try to continue that at the Big Tens and get a win so that we can move on and hopefully win (the Big Ten tournament). We have to win it all to go to the NCAAs — I know that.”
While the team is playing well by its standards, with three single-digit losses in its last five games, talk of winning four games in four days and running the table at the conference tournament with only half of its roster dressed for the first game seems a bit rash.
Littlejohn, however, appears undaunted.
When asked Wednesday if she thought that the team’s already dim hopes of beating Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament had been dashed by the suspension of half of her team and five of her team’s top seven scorers, Littlejohn replied simply:
“I don’t think so. I know that the players that we have left have been committed and dedicated throughout the entire season and they are some of the players who are a big part of the success we have been having late in our season.”
Littlejohn’s optimism aside, keep in mind this is the same team that took 58 days to win its first four games against juggernauts like Alcorn State, Western Illinois, Southwest Texas and Michigan State, and has gone 46 days with all its players healthy without a victory.
The Gophers have finished in the cellar of the Big Ten in each of the last three seasons and have a combined 2-51 record in their last 53 regular-season conference games.
While Minnesota may have drawn a favorable first-round match-up in No. 24 Wisconsin (20-8 overall, 9-7 Big Ten) whom they upset, 80-75, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament last year, none of that seems to matter now.
Under the circumstances, it probably won’t make a difference how well short-handed Minnesota plays against the Badgers, who upset then-first-place Illinois last weekend. Wisconsin is led by the trio of Katie Voigt (17.9 points, 5.2 rebounds per game), Ann Klapperich (15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) and LaTonya Sims (12.1 points, 6.8 rebounds).
Littlejohn maintains that the team will be fine this weekend as long as it develops a game plan to combat the loss of a major part of its scoring, height and nucleus on the floor.
“What we have to do is come up with a game plan to manage the clock,” Littlejohn said. “We have to play a half-court game and every possession, believe me, is critical. We’ve got to take care of the ball like we’ve never taken care of the ball before.”
The first-year head coach is doing her best to stay cool and is definitely not resorting to panic tactics during the team’s mini-crisis.
She was stunned when asked Wednesday if she had contemplated forfeiting the Gophers’ first-round matchup against Wisconsin instead of going to Indianapolis with only seven eligible players for Friday’s game — two of whom, Andrea Seago and Swantreca Taylor, have played a combined 49 minutes in the team’s 16 conference games this season.
“Forfeiting, my goodness,” Littlejohn said. “I don’t even have it within me to have that thought.
“I’m the ultimate optimist.”
Few people would argue with that point.