Big Ten title not out of reach for Gophers

by Paul Cordes

Last year I watched the Minnesota women’s basketball team play some pretty good basketball at times.

Especially at home, the Gophers played a lot of close games against some very good teams, including, a 55-58 loss to eventual Big Ten Tournament champion Purdue. Then a 67-70 loss to Big Ten regular season champions Ohio State.

But as close as Minnesota was to the big conference win, they could never really pull it down.

But one year later, we’ve got a different story. Coach Pam Borton’s squad, a year older and more experienced, is playing as well as anyone in the conference.

The Gophers made their biggest statement this season with a 79-70 win against then-No. 15 Ohio State – who dropped to No. 19 after the loss.

From there, they completed a sweep over Michigan State with their second win against the Spartans this season, a team picked to finish second in the conference this season.

Borton said these wins are putting them in the right direction.

“It’s harder winning the Big Ten than it is getting into the NCAA tournament, and I think that’s what these two games have done for us; put us in contention to win the Big Ten.”

In a column earlier this season, I mentioned three things the Gophers could do to improve their chances to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.

And I figured halfway through the conference schedule would be a good time to revisit the benchmarks.

• Minnesota’s guards have to take care of the ball.

I’ll give the Gophers’ guards a B-plus as far as improvement from last season. Right now Minnesota is giving up the ball an average of 16.7 times per game, which is fourth in the conference.

That’s not bad, but costly turnovers have hurt the Gophers, especially on fast breaks and when the ball is inside to the post.

• Junior guard Emily Fox acknowledged the fact that Minnesota still needs to do make some improvements.

“We as guards have to take responsibility for getting the ball to the post in good positions,” she said after Sunday’s win against Michigan State. “As guards, that’s our job to keep that under control.”

Junior guard Emily Fox has to adjust to the constant and aggressive pressure she is likely to see this year.

It’s hard not to give Fox an A after watching her against the Spartans.

Fox faced constant pressure and a consistent double team from the Michigan State defense.

She answered that pressure with 29 points, five assists and most importantly, she got to the free throw line and sunk nine out of 10 shots.

She’s third in the Big Ten in scoring with 17.6 points per game and isn’t having trouble finding her teammates – her 4.19 assists per game also puts her at third in the conference.

• The third and most important factor in my opinion – the Gophers’ post play.

When I originally wrote the column, I focused mainly on sophomore centers Ashley Ellis-Milan and Zoe Harper.

One person I regrettably underestimated however was senior forward Leslie Knight.

Her 33 points against Ohio State was certainly a statement for her and a major factor in the Gophers’ win.

Knight’s 13.4 points per game is 10th in the Big Ten and she has done her fair share defensively as well.

The problem

At 6-3 this season, Minnesota is in a three-way tie for second place in the conference with just 6-2 Ohio State ahead of them.

The one thing holding the Gophers back, however, is the road.

Four of Minnesota’s six losses have come away from The Barn and they’ve won just one conference game on the road, that game at Michigan State, to open Big Ten play.

So as good as they’ve played at home the past two games, the Gophers have to pick up some wins away from Williams if they’re serious about a Big Ten championship.

That’s something Borton is well aware of and is trying to get her team to change.

“We’ve got to win some games on the road now,” she said. “If we want to be in contention to win, we have to win some games on the road.”

-Paul Cordes welcomes comments at [email protected].