To make NCAA tournament, Gophers need to impress

Minnesota needs at least one more win to increase its postseason hopes.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham drives up the court against Ohio at Williams arena on Sunday.

Image by Lisa Persson

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham drives up the court against Ohio at Williams arena on Sunday.

by Jack Satzinger

Minnesota finished sixth in Big Ten regular-season play in 2003-04 — the same year it qualified for the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Final Four.

Gophers legends Lindsay Whalen — a star guard — and Janel McCarville — an imposing post presence — led that team.

Ten years later, a similar dynamic stars for the Gophers.

All-Big Ten performers Rachel Banham and Amanda Zahui B. lead Minnesota as it looks for its first NCAA tournament berth in five years.

“I think if the season ended today and nobody played another game of basketball, we’d be a lock,” head coach Pam Borton said. “I just feel like it’s a no-brainer that we’re in.”

ESPN’s latest rankings agree.

Minnesota is barely in the NCAA tournament right now based on those estimations, but a lot of things can change during conference tournaments.

“That’s why they call it March Madness,” Borton said.

The Gophers likely need to make a run in the Big Ten tournament, or they could be left on the outside looking in — again.

It’s a feeling that would be all too familiar for senior forward Micaëlla Riché.

“I just remember going to [Borton’s] house and watching the NCAA selection show and always being like, ‘OK. We’re waiting for our name to get called.’ And … it hasn’t been so far,” she said.

The Gophers still lack a signature win this season and haven’t beaten any of the teams ranked ahead of them in the Big Ten.

Borton estimated that her team could have won one or two more conference games if it hadn’t been hit with the injury bug.

Jackie Johnson is out for the season with a torn ACL, and Borton announced Tuesday that Shayne Mullaney is likely out for the rest of the year with concussion-like symptoms.

While it could be tough to make a run with only eight players, Borton said she thinks the grueling Big Ten schedule has prepared the Gophers to do just that.

“It’s honestly harder to win a Big Ten championship than it is to get to the Final Four,” she said. “This is a tough league. It’s a grind.”

Borton has been to the Final Four before, but Minnesota has never won a Big Ten title.

Right now, though, the Gophers are focused on flipping both of those scripts.

It all starts Thursday night against Wisconsin.

“If you get that first win, I think you get the hang of it,” Banham said. “I think we can make a run at it.”