Gophers try to rebound amid struggles

Minnesota is 1-3 in its last four games but will meet struggling Illinois.

Freshman guard Carlie Wagner runs down the court at Williams Arena on Dec. 7, 2014, against Butler.

Daily File Photo, Liam James Doyle

Freshman guard Carlie Wagner runs down the court at Williams Arena on Dec. 7, 2014, against Butler.

Matt Greenstein

After starting the season on a run for the record books, Minnesota’s lack of energy and execution has brought the team to unfamiliar territory.

“We started really hot, and we just had a couple of off games. We just hit a drought. We’re going to get out of it and get back to the way we were,” freshman guard Carlie Wagner said.

Since head coach Marlene Stollings took the reins, the Gophers had yet to lose back-to-back games until late January.

Minnesota has now lost three of its last four games, including an overtime home loss against a Purdue team that at the time had a losing conference record.

“When you get to this time of year, everybody increases their intensity level. We [have to] tap back into what we were doing during that run,” Stollings said.

Wagner said the team’s goal all year has been to reach the NCAA tournament.

Senior forward Shae Kelley, a transfer from Old Dominion, as well as senior guard Rachel Banham, who is redshirting for the season with an injury, have yet to experience the “big dance.”

Kelley called this point in the season “now or never” for the team’s tournament hopes, noting the sense of urgency she sees from the rest of the team.

“We want to get Rachel and Shae there. … We’ve worked really hard for it, and I think that in the next games, we’ll show that we can get there,” Wagner said.

Though the Gophers have their sights on the NCAA tournament, redshirt sophomore Amanda Zahui B. said it won’t be easy.

“The road to perfection isn’t always easy. We’re playing this season for Rachel and Shae, and we won’t let them down,” she said.

With the Gophers struggling, Kelley said the team’s confidence is shaken.

Minnesota hosts Illinois Thursday, and with a victory, Kelley said the team would regain its focus.

“It’d be huge for our confidence, and it’d be huge for our team,” she said.

The Illini have had their fair share of struggles during the season — they’re now on a cold streak and hold a 2-8 conference record. 

Illinois has dropped seven consecutive games, including a 20-point loss to Maryland last month.

Minnesota lost its last game by 21 points, and Wagner said the team’s lack of energy made it tough to execute its game plan.

In order to move in the right direction, Kelley said the Gophers need to adjust their game plan before they can adjust for their upcoming opponent.

“It’s key that we focus in on us and not what the other team is going to do. As long as we execute the way that we want to, we will come out with a win,” she said.

With eight games remaining in the regular season, it could be an uphill battle for the Gophers getting to their season goal.

“We know nothing is going to be easy. We’ve fought for everything we’ve gotten to this point,” Stollings said. “The important part is how we bounce back from it. The next two weeks will, in many ways, define the NCAA tournament.”

 

Jack Satzinger contributed to this story.