Bringing a new level of play

Guard Rachel Banham is set to shatter school records in her senior season with Minnesota.

by Betsy Helfand

Rachel Banham dropped 15 points in the first game of her collegiate career nearly three years ago.

In her debut performance, the guard led her team in scoring.

Fast-forward to Banham’s senior year and not much has changed.

Though she likely has the most talented supporting cast since she began college, Banham will still shoulder a major load of the Gophers’ offense.

She received the honor of Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year on Thursday after leading the conference in scoring with 22.1 points per game last season. Banham begins her fourth season in less than a month.

But despite her prolific scoring, her new head coach, Marlene Stollings, said she thinks there’s another level for the star.

“One of the things we’ve done is implement a jab series,” Stollings said. “And [we’re] utilizing shot fakes more, [and expanding] her ability to come off screens more efficiently.”

Banham described Stollings’ style of play as “up-tempo” and said that style matches the one she played in high school.

A more up-tempo style requires a higher level of fitness, and Banham said she has recently been focusing on getting in shape and staying healthy.

“I want to bring it on both ends [of the court],” she said. “And I’ve said that in the past, but I think this year, it’s just been more of a continued stressor for me in that I really want to be good on both ends.”

Stollings said Banham’s improved level of fitness will ultimately prepare the star for the professional game.

But before that, Banham has her senior season to think about.

Banham currently sits at 1,993 points, and barring injury, she should easily shatter former Gophers star Lindsay Whalen’s 2,285 all-time point record this season.

Banham is on-pace to shatter numerous other program records, too, likely earning more national recognition along the way.

But one of the most important things Banham hasn’t accomplished is within
reach, and she has her eyes set on it: reaching the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers talk about the tournament every day in practice, Banham said.

During her freshman season, the Gophers won the Women’s Basketball Invitational, a third-tier tournament.

As a sophomore, Banham and company lost the Women’s National Invitational Tournament in the first round.

Last year, they lost in the third round of the WNIT.

“Every year, I think we’ve gotten even closer, and I think every year I’ve continued to get better and continued to bring myself to a new level, and I just try to do everything I can,” she said. “We’re just so close.

In her freshman year, Banham scored nearly 24 percent of Minnesota’s points. In her sophomore year, that number rose to 30 percent and in her junior season, it topped 32 percent.

This year, Banham will be an offensive leader for the team, but the Gophers have more depth around the court, which should alleviate some of the pressure she’s felt in the past.

 “I think what you’re going to see is her becoming … a more efficient scorer, shooting percentages go up and not all the pressure [will] be on her every possession to score,” Stollings said. “And we’re excited about that par because I think it’s going to improve her all-around game.”

Sophomore center Amanda Zahui B., who averaged a double-double last season, is a year older, and the Gophers added transfer Shae Kelley, who averaged 17.8 points per game last season at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

“Being at my previous schools, I had a lot of attention on me and same for [Banham and Zahui B.],” Kelley said. “It’s going to take a lot more pressure off of them, and I think we’re going to have better looks, easier looks at the basket.”

On top of that, Banham won’t be required to bring the ball up the court as much.

When junior Shayne Mullaney went down with an injury last season, Banham shifted from playing shooting guard to point guard, and she dished out 131 of the team’s 545 assists.

But in an ideal world, Stollings said Banham would mostly play shooting guard.

Still, her coach said she’s more than capable of playing at the point if the Gophers need to use her there.

And that’s not the only thing Banham’s more than capable of.

She has one more season, which officially begins Nov. 14,  to cement her name in the Gophers’ record books.

“I think the sense of urgency is upon her. I think she realizes once the tip-off happens, [she’s] got about five months left,” Stollings said. “And what kind of a legacy do you want to leave here? You have an opportunity to do some very special stuff.”