Backcourt fills its role for Gophers

Minnesota will play Wisconsin in a Border Battle on Wednesday night.

Matt Greenstein

As the backcourt goes, so do the Gophers.

Offensive firepower has fueled Minnesota to many wins, but turnovers have plagued it in losses.

In the Gophers’ five conference losses, starting guards Mikayla Bailey, Shayne Mullaney and Carlie Wagner average only about 26 points per game.

In the seven conference victories, the trio averages about 34 points per game.

Minnesota’s backcourt was a storyline coming into the season with senior guard Rachel Banham on the verge of breaking a school scoring record. But when Banham went down for the season with an injury, a glaring spotlight shined on the guards.

Earlier in the season, head coach Marlene Stollings said she would be using a three-guard set to run her up-tempo offense.

“I think we’re sharing the ball really well right now. I think we have really good team chemistry, and we’re always willing to make the extra pass,” Mullaney said.

After missing time last season with a concussion, Mullaney has come back to the Gophers as a facilitator in the offense.

“I think this year [with] us not having Rachel, I’ve had to step up and play the point. Last year, Rachel and I shared a lot of the point guard position. I’m extremely thankful. At this point last year I wasn’t able to play,” Mullaney said.

The junior guard is currently averaging seven assists per game — second in the Big Ten.

“I think with our young ladies in general, we share the ball quite well, and we have to with the personnel on our team,” Stollings said.

While Mullaney’s role as the facilitator pads the assists column, she also leads the team with 86 turnovers.

Sharing the ball has helped Minnesota become the fourth-highest scoring team in the conference.

Wagner, a freshman who averaged 37 points per game during her senior year in high school, has a knack for scoring.

“Offense is definitely the side of the floor that she excels in,” Mullaney said.

Earlier last month, Wagner said the game had slowed down for her, making it easier to score.

In last Sunday’s victory against Michigan State, Wagner set collegiate career highs with 25 points and five 3-pointers.

“[My scoring] definitely builds my confidence up. It’s what I’ve been waiting for all season, and it’s finally coming to that point,” Wagner said.

With Banham — the team’s leading scorer last season — out for the year, Wagner has helped fill the scoring void. She is currently averaging 14.1 points in conference games, ranking her third on the team.

In Minnesota’s seven conference victories, Wagner or Bailey has scored in double figures.

Stollings said Bailey’s role on the team is as a spot-up shooter who can hit shots from anywhere and said it is vital for her to play her role each night.

Last season, Bailey averaged about 17 minutes on the court and just more than three points per game.

This season, the junior guard has almost doubled both categories, playing just less than 34 minutes while averaging more than seven points per game.

Bailey averages just more than seven 3-point attempts per game, even though she makes it just under 30 percent of the time.

Stollings preaches a “keep shooting, and eventually they’ll go in” mindset to her players.

“We’ve never told them not to shoot. They have to shoot. They need to score for us to be successful. If they’re 0-for-10, we want them to shoot the 11th shot,” Stollings said.

The Gophers backcourt’s consistency has been a vital part to Minnesota’s success, and Wagner said the trio would continue to fill in their respective roles to help the team win.

“We’re still getting better. We’re not going to settle for where we’re at,” Wagner said.