Borton sets goals high for deep roster

The Gophers open exhibition play Wednesday at Williams Arena.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham plays against Nebraska on Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

Erin Westover, Daily File

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham plays against Nebraska on Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

Samuel Gordon

The Gophers women’s basketball team ended last season with a championship at the third-tier Women’s Basketball Invitational.

Head women’s basketball coach Pam Borton said this year’s team can contend for a Big Ten title.

“That’s our goal every year, to be in position to contend for a Big Ten title,” Borton said. “I think if you can finish in the top four in your conference — which I believe we can — you can make a huge run in the NCAA tournament.”

Borton will see Minnesota in action for the first time Wednesday when the Gophers open their season with a home exhibition game against local foe Concordia-St. Paul.

Minnesota began practicing Oct. 1, and Borton said this year’s squad has improved in nearly every facet of the game.

“We have speed this year. We’re a tougher team. We’ve got more ball-handlers on our team,” she said. “I think … a big weakness last year was turnovers. [We] turned it over too much.”

Borton also said she thought the Gophers would be a better rebounding team this year.

If Borton’s words prove to be true, star point guard Rachel Banham’s job will be a heck of a lot easier.

Banham, the 2011-12 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, was the team’s primary ball-handler and top scorer with 16.1 points per game last season.

She’s expected to be the team’s leading scorer this year, too, but she’ll have a lot more help.

Redshirt freshman guard/forward Kayla Hirt is finally healthy after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Hirt was a prolific scorer in high school and was one of ESPN.com’s top-100 players in the high school class of 2011.

Earlier this month, Hirt told the Minnesota Daily she’s “100 percent” healthy and ready to contribute, and Borton is expecting big things from her.

“[Hirt has] been extremely productive in practices. She’s been our leading rebounder in practices,” Borton said. “I think her ceiling is as high as Rachel’s.”

Hirt will be expected to score and help replace Kiara Buford, who the Gophers lost to graduation. Buford averaged 13.6 points last season.

Junior forward Micaëlla Riché and senior forward Katie Loberg will join Hirt in the front court.

Loberg was Minnesota’s third-leading scorer (9.1 points per game) and leading rebounder (5.7) last year.

Riché averaged 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last season, but those averages climbed up to 10.7 and 4.7, respectively, in the team’s final seven games.

Veteran guards Leah Cotton, Kionna Kellogg and Sari Noga will all see playing time alongside Banham, and Borton said freshman guards Shayne Mullaney and Mikayla Bailey will also play.

Earlier this month, Borton said Mullaney could play point guard, which would allow Banham to slide over to the shooting guard spot as more of a pure scorer.

Borton also touted Bailey’s toughness and tenacity on the defensive end and said she could vie for a starting role.

But Minnesota will likely go as Banham goes.

Banham had a blood clot in her lung and was held out of practice until last week. Borton said the exhibition season will be crucial for Banham to shake off the rust and get back into game shape.

The 5-foot-9-inch Banham said she worked on her jump shot and spent a lot of time in the weight room this offseason.

The Gophers will open the regular season Nov. 10.

“This is one of the better teams we’ve had probably in five or six years,” Borton said. “I think the Big Ten is tough, and we needed to get tougher players, and I think we did.”

 

-Andrew Krammer contributed to this report.