INDIANAPOLIS — The seven Gophers women’s basketball players suspended earlier in the week by coach Cheryl Littlejohn for team rules violations stood silently underneath one of the baskets at the RCA Dome Friday night before Minnesota’s first-round Big Ten tournament game against No. 24 Wisconsin.
Clad in street clothes, the players tried to put on their best faces and cheer for their uniformed teammates. But there was nothing the suspended players and little more those who actually played could do to prevent a season-ending 65-47 loss to the bigger, deeper and more talented Badgers in front of 4,280 fans.
Try as they might, the Gophers’ thin, tired group of seven eligible players could not stop Wisconsin from ending their frustrating season the way it has concluded the last three years, with only four wins and a lopsided loss in the first two rounds of the conference tournament.
“The heart sometimes doesn’t get seen in stats,” Littlejohn said after the game during a heartfelt press conference. “But the seven that played (Friday) gave great effort.”
But all the heart in the world and a career-high 23 points and 38 minutes from sophomore point guard Erin Olson couldn’t help shorthanded Minnesota escape its 12th consecutive defeat and seventh loss to the Badgers in the last eight meetings.
The Gophers shot a mere 32 percent from the field and lost by 18 points to a Wisconsin team that itself shot only 38 percent for the game and committed as many turnovers as the Gophers did (19).
“With limited numbers and the lack of height inside, we knew that all of our guards would have to step up,” Olson said. “Everybody hit their shots. We played hard. The offensive boards killed us. We just couldn’t match up underneath.”
Minnesota was outrebounded 54-35, as the Badgers posted a season-high 30 offensive rebounds and eight blocked shots in their first Big Ten tournament win since the conference tourney was revived in 1995.
The Gophers used intense play and a swarming defense at the outset to jump out to an early 13-7 lead five minutes into the game and looked for awhile that they were capable of pulling off an improbable upset of historic proportions.
“The people that were playing played really hard,” Wisconsin guard Katie Voigt said. “Playing with only seven players, that is real tough, especially in the Big Ten. But they had us down for the first few minutes of the game.”
Minnesota, however, was unable to hold on to the lead with a depleted lineup of mostly supporting players. The team’s seven eligible players entered with combined averages of only 22.8 points and 14.9 minutes per game and became noticeably winded during the Badgers’ run at the end of the first half.
“Whether it was fatigue or not, I’m not sure,” Olson said. “But at that point of the game we didn’t execute as well as we needed to.”
While the Gophers played better than expected and made the game interesting early on, they were no match for the Badgers, who had an answer to every Minnesota challenge.
The seven suspended players were left to watch helplessly from the bench as Wisconsin’s first-, second- and third-team players beat up on their weary teammates. The Gophers also had to endure cries of “we’ve got subs” and “98 bottles of beer on the wall, take one down — suspended for one game,” from the Wisconsin pep band during the game.
Under the circumstances, Minnesota’s players did a fairly good job of keeping their focus and not giving up in a hostile situation while facing nearly impossible odds.
“We didn’t let it become a distraction,” Littlejohn said. “A lot of times it’s human nature for the media to go into a frenzy when they find out that seven players are not going to be dressing for a game. But we came to win. We had a game plan, and we played hard.”
No. 24 Wisconsin 36 29 — 65
Gophers 20 27 — 47
Boston 6-12 1-1 14, Voigt 4-5 2-2 12, Sims 5-11 0-4 10, Paulus 4-8 2-2 10, Klapperich 4-9 1-2 9, Pate 1-4 0-0 2, Rhodes 0-2 2-4 2, Bird 1-4 0-0 2, Konieczny 1-2 0-0 2, Hartwig 0-7 0-0 0. Totals 27-70 8-16 65.
Olson 10-23 2-2 23, Schieber 4-17 2-4 11, Robinson 3-3 2-3 8, Seago 1-4 0-0 2, Hansen 0-6 0-0 0, Taylor 0-2 3-4 3, Young 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-56 9-13 47.
3-point goals — Wisconsin 3-10 (Voigt 2-3, Boston 1-4, Paulus 0-1, Pate 0-1, Hartwig 0-1), Minnesota 2-15 (Olson 1-2, Schieber 1-13). Fouled out — none. Rebounds — Wisconsin 54 (Sims 11), Minnesota 35 (Seago 7). Assists — Wisconsin 10 (Sims, Paulus, Pate 2), Minnesota 7 (Hansen 3). Total fouls — Wisconsin 14, Minnesota 18. A-4,280.