The Gophers’ run for respectability took them to Hawaii this weekend for games against Hawaii, Kansas and Massachusetts.
After losing the first two games of the tournament, Sunday’s game with Massachusetts figured to be Minnesota’s best chance to break through for a win.
The Minutewomen were 0-2 going into the game. The Gophers made it 0-3.
Led by senior Sonja Robinson and sophomore Theresa LeCuyer, Minnesota beat Massachusetts 64-56. Robinson led the Gophers with a career-high 16 points and eight rebounds, and LeCuyer also had 16 points and five rebounds.
“This was the kind of weekend we needed,” coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “Sonja Robinson set the tone for this team all weekend. She had the confidence and the leadership to help us win tonight.”
Minnesota took the lead for good late in the first half on a three-pointer by freshman Moneeke Bowden. The Gophers led 29-26 at halftime and never looked back.
Minnesota nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young season Saturday against Kansas — a team that was ranked No. 8 by coaches at the start of the season, and currently is 17th in the AP poll.
“Maybe it’s surprising to a lot of people,” Littlejohn said. “But we know we did a great job. You’re disappointed because you didn’t get the win, but we know we played well.”
Minnesota led the Jayhawks for the first 39 minutes of the game, but a Nakia Sanford jumper gave Kansas a 49-48 lead with less than a minute remaining.
But the Gophers managed to tie the game with .7 seconds remaining, when freshman Cassie VanderHeyden hit a three-pointer to send the game to overtime.
The Jayhawks took advantage of the inexperienced Gophers in overtime — outscoring them 11-2 — and won 62-53.
Minnesota also managed to stay close to Hawaii Friday, but lost 63-52. Littlejohn was pleased with her team’s efforts against three teams that made the NCAA tournament last season.
“It’s been a great team effort,” Littlejohn said. “All the freshmen are playing well. Jackie Tate has done a great job on defense.”
Tate was a part of the Minnesota defense that held Kansas to 23 percent shooting from the floor in the first half and just 14 points.
The veterans played solid basketball this weekend as well. LeCuyer scored in double figures against Hawaii and Kansas, and pulled down eight rebounds against the Jayhawks.
Junior college transfer Antoinetta Blevins sat out all this weekend’s games. She’s still nursing a sprained ankle suffered in Tuesday’s win over Illinois State.
But missing one player didn’t make or break Minnesota’s chances. The difference between this Gophers team and many in recent memory is they’re actually showing signs of improvement.
“The only way we’re going to get better is to play the best in the country,” Littlejohn said.
— Mark Heller contributed to this report.