An up-and-down season thus far for Gophers

John Hageman

Just when you think youâÄôre out, the Gophers pull you right back in. The Gophers have made a habit this season of getting down by seemingly insurmountable leads, clawing back and ultimately coming just short of a comeback. In their 61-59 loss to San Diego State on Friday, the Gophers shot 36 percent from the field but twice came back from double-digit deficits. They couldnâÄôt complete the comeback when, after trailing by as much as 11 points with 10 minutes left, a last-second jumper to tie the game didnâÄôt fall. The Gophers didnâÄôt make a field goal for the first 4:51 against Wisconsin-Green Bay earlier this season and trailed 11-2 to start the game, but crept back to within just two at halftime. They fell back to a 16-point second-half deficit and fought back again, only to fall 79-75. Senior guard China Antoine said starting off sluggish and being unable to recover has been the common denominator in the teamâÄôs losses. âÄúWeâÄôre doing whatever we can to win, and the other team is just holding on to the lead,âÄù Antoine said. âÄúTheyâÄôre even more nervous than we are because we have nothing to lose at that point âĦ ItâÄôs harder to lose those games because you did so much to get back in it.âÄù Antoine has been doing her part in helping the Gophers win this season. With a team-leading 43 assists this season, more than double any other teammateâÄôs total, Antoine is making the most of her final season after a knee injury sidelined her for most of last season. But her 54 percent three-point percentage âÄî at one point she hit 11 of 13 from behind the arc âÄî has demanded the attention of opponents. She scored just eight points in two games at the Nugget Classic this weekend. Meanwhile, senior Kiara Buford, the teamâÄôs most consistent and leading scorer, got into foul trouble early and had to sit for much of SaturdayâÄôs 71-67 win over North Carolina State. Head coach Pam Borton said teams are starting to key in on Buford and Antoine, who are the teamâÄôs only returning starters from last season. That leaves more responsibility for role players like sophomore Leah Cotton, who hasnâÄôt started once but is second on the team in scoring, and junior Brianna Mastey. Mastey, averaging five points and 23 minutes per game, said her job isnâÄôt necessarily to score in place of Antoine and Buford, but to find a way to get them the ball. âÄúThey have been a big reason of why weâÄôve had so much success,âÄù Mastey said. âÄúI think teams are going to start recognizing that and finding ways to keep the ball out of their hands. So weâÄôre going to find ways that we can get the ball to them.âÄù Cotton seems more than happy to take the reins herself, scoring a career-high 25 points in as many minutes off the bench in the GophersâÄô win over North Carolina State Saturday. âÄúI feel great about it,âÄù Cotton said after the win. âÄúJust knowing that I could come off the bench and be a spark for the team and send us in the right direction is a positive thing for me.âÄù Coming off their third tournament split of the season, the Gophers can build some momentum when they return home to face Virginia Tech (4-2) Thursday at 7 p.m. for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. On Sunday theyâÄôll face perhaps the sportâÄôs most dominating player in No. 2 BaylorâÄôs 6-foot-8 phenom Brittney Griner in Waco, Texas. In just her sophomore year at Baylor (7-1), Griner already holds the school record for career blocks. In a 106-41 win against Southeastern Louisiana Sunday, Griner recorded her fourth career triple-double, with 10 blocks. The only Gophers player even close to matching up to Griner is 6-foot-7 freshman Amber Dvorak, who has played only 13 minutes all season. If the Gophers can get past the Hokies and manage an improbable win over the Lady Bears, the wins might start coming easier. âÄúOnce we start finally gelling together even more than we already have âĦ weâÄôll definitely be on a good roll,âÄù Antoine said. âÄúWeâÄôre not looking too far in the future, but once we get some wins together weâÄôll be okay.âÄù