The Gophers never trailed Tuesday night, and Amanda Zahui B.’s presence was evident from the opening tip — literally.
The 6-foot-5-inch redshirt freshman tapped the ball back to a teammate and then scored the first basket of the season as the Gophers ran past Winona State 82-44 in their first exhibition action of the season at Williams Arena on Tuesday.
Zahui B. made an impact throughout the game and had a double-double at halftime. It was her first contest in a Gophers uniform, and she finished with 28 points and 19 rebounds.
“I think it was important for her to just get out here and play,” head coach Pam Borton said. “She has a long way to go, but hopefully she can build off of this.”
Rachel Banham also had 13 points at the break, but lighting up the stat sheet is nothing new for the junior guard. Banham averaged a team-high 20.7 points last season and is on the preseason watch list for the John R. Wooden Award.
Thirty players were honored, and Banham is one of just three Big Ten players on the watch list.
“It feels great,” she said. “It’s cool. I’m very happy about it.”
On Monday, Borton said Minnesota needs to shore up its defense this season after being 11th out of 12 teams in the Big Ten for defense last year. Minnesota allowed 65.5 points per game.
Borton said the team did a lot of work over the summer to improve defensively and some of that shone through Tuesday night. Banham had two steals in the first half that led to breakaway layups. Zahui B. had two blocks in the first half as well.
“I felt like we got in some passing lanes,” Borton said. “We’re really emphasizing that.
“That’s got to be a big part of what we do this year.”
Minnesota’s defense was effective Tuesday, but Winona State is a Division II team that likely won’t pose as much of a threat to the Gophers as other Big Ten programs.
Sophomore Jackie Johnson made some noise in the second half, scoring a career-high 12 points. The forward said her improvement came from being more engaged when not on the court.
“I think it started by trying to help my teammates more when I wasn’t playing,” Johnson said. “Trying to be versatile and becoming better every day.”
Senior forward MicaÃ«lla RichÃ© did not play Tuesday due to an ankle injury incurred in practice earlier this week. She started at center last season but will move to power forward to start alongside Zahui B.
“It makes us bigger,” Borton said about adding Zahui B. “We were one of the smaller teams in the Big Ten last year. … I’m excited for MicÃ¤ella to come back and play those two together.”