Banham falls, Minnesota moves on

The Gophers moved to the Sweet 16 of the WNIT with a victory over SMU.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham lays on the ground after injuring her right leg at the Women's National Invitation Tournament game against Southern Methodist University. Minnesota won 77-70 over SMU to advance to the next game, which will be at South Dakota State on Thursday.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham lays on the ground after injuring her right leg at the Women’s National Invitation Tournament game against Southern Methodist University. Minnesota won 77-70 over SMU to advance to the next game, which will be at South Dakota State on Thursday.

Jack Satzinger

Williams Arena was stunned into silence as Rachel Banham lay on the hardwood, scrunching her face in pain. After a few tense minutes, team trainers helped the Big Ten’s leading scorer, favoring her right leg, to the locker room.

Banham later emerged with a boot on her right foot and was relegated to watching as her teammates eked out a 77-70 win over Southern Methodist in the second round of the WNIT.

“There are three people around a loose ball in a pretty tight space, and I think she got her foot wedged in between Sari [Noga] and the other player,” head coach Pam Borton said.

Borton didn’t know the exact status of Banham’s injury after the game and said Banham would get it looked at Sunday night. Banham’s injury adds to the slew of health issues the Gophers (22-12) have faced this season.

Minnesota started the season with just 10 players after not adding walk-ons. Then Shayne Mullaney and Jackie Johnson went down with season-ending injuries. Stabresa McDaniel also didn’t play Sunday, due to concussion-like symptoms.

Aside from the injuries, star center Amanda Zahui B. found herself on the bench for much of the game because of foul trouble.

So with nearly half of her team down, Noga took charge.

“I’m a senior, I’m a leader, and I had to step up,” she said. “We knew that once Rachel went down we had to win for her, because she does so much for our team.”

Noga scored a career-high 22 points. Minnesota jumped out to a 14-2 lead early and stretched it to 46-29 by the end of the first half.

“We had a great lead,” Borton said. “I thought we played spectacular in the first half.”

But with Banham — who finished with 11 points — benched, the lead dwindled.

Southern Methodist (18-14) trailed 74-70 with 1:05 left in the game, but a trio of free throws from Mikayla Bailey sealed the win. Bailey was instrumental in holding off the Mustangs’ late charge and finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. She also checked Southern Methodist star guard Keena Mays at times during the game. Mays still managed 34 points on 40 percent shooting from the floor.

“I knew I had to step up and try not to foul and just keep that kid in front,” Bailey said. “She hit some big shots, but Sari did an amazing job on her as well.”

Banham spent much of the offseason strengthening her lower body to avoid the chronic knee pain that held her back last year. Still, this season has shown that freak plays can derail preparation. 

In a Dec. 5 game against Miami, Banham injured her right knee just before halftime. Williams Arena was just as silent then as it was Sunday when Banham went down. She missed Minnesota’s next game, a 46-44 win over North Dakota.

Banham’s status for the Gophers’ contest at South Dakota State on March 27 is unclear, but she doesn’t seem content with watching her team play an elimination game with six players.

“She already told us she’ll be playing in the next game,” Noga said.