Visiting Buckeyes will be a tall task for Minnesota

Had it not been for a pair of overtime losses in the last three weeks, the Minnesota women would be tied for first place in the Big Ten. Instead, the 4-3 Gophers are in a four-way tie for fourth place.

Minnesota (13-6 overall, 4-3 Big Ten) will attempt to right the ship, sophomore forward Ashley Ellis-Milan said, as they prepare to host No. 15 Ohio State at Williams Arena tonight at 7 p.m.

“It’s all about the will to win,” Ellis-Milan said. “It’s a battle out there, and it’s all about who’s going to win it. You have to fight to the end to get that last basket or that last rebound, and I don’t think we had that mentality earlier. But we’ve focused on that in practice, and I think we’re going to get it.”

The Buckeyes (15-3, 6-1) have never been an easy team to beat for the Gophers as Ohio State has won 45 of the teams’ 53 meetings, and this year shouldn’t be any easier.

Freshman center Jantel Lavender leads a strong lineup in the paint, averaging 16.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game so far this year. The Buckeyes’ ability to get the ball inside has made the game easy for senior guard Marscilla Packer, allowing her to add 15.2 points to the Big Ten’s best offensive unit.

The Gophers should be able to keep up with the scoring of Ohio State, but the challenge for Minnesota will be to get stops on defense. And with all the praise coach Pam Borton gave to the Buckeyes’ offense, it may not be an easy task.

“They’re a very good team. They play a deliberate style of basketball, and they’re going to get the shot that they want,” coach Pam Borton said. “They want to get the ball inside, and they’re going to do whatever they can to get the ball into the post.”

But despite Ohio State’s inside presence and quality guards, senior forward Leslie Knight said that slowing down the Buckeyes isn’t impossible.

“I know that we can do it, but we just need to have that extra focus over that last three or four minutes of the game,” she said. “Their post players are legitimate threats, but we’ll take a look at the game plan and how we plan to defend them, and go from there.”

On Minnesota’s side, offense has been the key to the Gophers’ success, as the team is leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. After an up and down start to the season, Ellis-Milan attributed the improved shooting to extra shooting drills and a level of comfort coming from getting used to the season.

“I feel like we are getting into the flow of the season a little more, and we spend a little more time in the gym shooting, and it’s paying off,” she said. “We’re really starting to gel, and it’s showing on the offensive end.”

The only offensive category that has cost Minnesota so far has been its free throw shooting, as the Gophers were a combined 37-61 in their three losses, and are dead last in free throw shooting percentage in the conference.

But despite losing three close games, including the two overtime losses, Ellis-Milan seemed sure that the team’s confidence levels were still high heading into one of the biggest conference games of the year.

“I think in the back of a lot of our minds, we are 6-1,” Ellis Milan said. “I think this is a huge game for us, not only for pride, but to make a statement. This is going to be a great game.”