Women’s hoops starts fresh tonight

Aaron Kirscht

Gophers women’s basketball coach Linda Hill-MacDonald says a turning point for the upcoming season, which begins today, actually occurred in the final game of the 1995-96 season.
Minnesota was matched up against Ohio State — a team they lost to twice in the regular season by what Hill-MacDonald called a “ridiculous, outrageous” average of 40 points — in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The game remained close until the final minutes, when the Buckeyes converted late free throws and won 78-64.
The scoring margin was still substantial, but Hill-MacDonald said the ability of the Gophers to keep the game close was a testament to their character development.
“It was a very good thing for them to work through a lot of adversity, and then muster up enough pride in themselves to put a better performance on the floor against Ohio State,” Hill-MacDonald said. “They could have just blown it off and said, ‘Well, the season’s over.’ But they didn’t. That was the beginning of changing attitudes around.”
Attitude will have to be a saving grace for the Gophers, who finished last season with a 4-23 record and failed to win a Big Ten game in 16 attempts. A rash of injuries took a sizeable chunk out of the roster, leaving the team with eight scholarship players and a pair of walk-ons.
Hill-MacDonald even held an open try-out last month to try to find a few players to make practice a little more bearable. She is also hoping to lure a couple of fall sport athletes to join the team once their seasons are through.
“But we’re getting the work done that we need to get done,” she said. “We’re trying to be creative in practice, and those who were hurt are getting healthy.”
Still, the loss of Cheri Stafford, an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick who started all 27 games for the Gophers last season, and Swantreca Taylor and Sarah Schieber to injury will make it tough on a team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season.
It’s not a complete wash, however. The Gophers return co-captains Angie Iverson, who led the team in rebounding last season, and play-maker Jaime Ellis. The Gophers are an extremely young team — no seniors and only two juniors — but Hill-MacDonald said they are growing together.
“The players are a year older, they have more experience,” Hill-MacDonald said. “And they’re a very motivated group; their thinking is much more positive than it’s been for a long time.”
Minnesota will likely be forced to rely on attitude and perseverance more than they would like. With their dwindling bench, the Gophers’ biggest obstacle — in addition to teams like Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa, the defending Big Ten champs — will be depth. An extra couple of players to choose from can make a big difference for an opponent.
But Hill-MacDonald will look to a pair of young players, sophomore Mindy Hansen and freshman Kiauna Burns, to shoulder some responsibility and provide a boost to the Gophers backcourt quickness.
“Mindy is playing with a lot more maturity and control than she did last year,” MacDonald said, and Burns, a freshman from Litchfield, Minn., “brings us a lot more speed and explosiveness in the backcourt. I think people will just fall in love with her; she’s that kind of player.”
When asked to discuss her expectations of the Gophers this season, Hill-MacDonald mentioned Iowa, which turned a ninth-place finish in 1995 into a Big Ten title last season.
“(Iowa was) able to do that because they believed in what they were doing and they believed in their goals,” she said. “If our players can keep their positive attitudes, we’ll be putting a much better product on the floor this season.”
In the face of a lot of adversity, Hill-MacDonald remains upbeat and confident. It’s a feeling she says comes from her players, who seem more than ready to put last season behind them.
“They’ve really let go of the past, and you have to do that,” Hill-MacDonald said. “You have to move on, or the past will continue to haunt you.
“But I think anything’s possible. I really do. And as long as the players believe they can do that, I do.”

Note: Minnesota signed 6-foot-1 forward Theresa LeCuyer to a national letter of intent Wednesday but missed on several top in-state recruits. LeCuyer, who plays at Anoka High School, was the first player to verbally commit to the Gophers. The second was 5-6 guard Ayesha Whitfield, who is considered one of Detroit’s top 10 players this season.