Struggling Gophers focus on improving defense as Big Ten season winds down

Minnesota, which has lost five of its last six games, needs to go 5-2 to finish .500 in conference play.

Guard Rachel Banham plays against Michigan on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Emily Dunker

Guard Rachel Banham plays against Michigan on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, at Williams Arena.

by Samuel Gordon

The Gophers are a little more than halfway through their Big Ten schedule, and if the season ended today, they’d be on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble looking in.

Despite Minnesota’s disappointing 3-6 conference record, players and coaches said it’s not too late to turn things around.

“We’re probably a couple of games behind where we wanted to be at this point,” head coach Pam Borton said. “It’s important to get your home wins. We’ve dropped two games here at home.”

Borton said the team is probably one win below where it wants to be in conference play.

With better play in close games, Minnesota could be 6-3 in the conference — three of its losses were by eight points or fewer.

If the Gophers are to turn things around, they’ll likely need to play better defensively.

Minnesota has allowed 80 points or more in two of its past three conference games.

“We make it too easy. We’re a little too lazy,” guard Rachel Banham said. “We don’t hustle back enough. Our communication isn’t there.”

When opponents are scoring at those rates, it puts more pressure on the Gophers’ offense.

Last Monday against Illinois, Minnesota scored 86 points — including 37 from Banham — but the Gophers allowed 91 and lost.

“Turning the ball over and missing layups in bunches creates fast-break opportunities for other teams,” Borton said. “That’s probably our biggest problem.”

In the following game against Michigan, however, the Gophers played tenacious team defense, held the Wolverines to 28 second-half points on 37 percent shooting and cruised to an easy win.

“As soon as we’re able to get that pace, get on a roll and get our swag on defense, it gets so easy,” forward-center Micaëlla Riché said.

Defense also helps to get complementary players involved offensively.

Banham is doing the heavy lifting, averaging 20.6 points in conference play. Riché has scored almost 12.4 points a night. But after that, no Gophers player averages more than 6.8 points in Big Ten games.

Role players stepped up against Michigan. Banham and Riché led the way with 32 points and 15 points, respectively, and three other players scored eight or more.

“That needs to be done on a consistent basis,” Borton said. “Consistency is our Achilles’ heel.”

Borton said she’s aiming to finish the conference season with a .500 record. To do that, the Gophers will have to win five of their next seven games.