Women’s hoops surprises Badgers in first round

by Aaron Kirscht

INDIANAPOLIS — Coach Linda Hill-MacDonald’s 95-year-old grandmother has spent the better part of the last two seasons praying to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, for help in curing what ails the hapless Gophers.
On Friday, Grandma, the Gophers and a saint or two teamed up to deliver the upset of the year in the Big Ten. Minnesota shocked Wisconsin 80-75 in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
The Lord doth work in mysterious ways.
“I’m not familiar with all the Catholic saints, but I’m sure there’s one she’ll pray to say thanks for the win,” Hill-MacDonald said. “Me, I just go directly to the Main Man.”
Divine intervention? Perhaps. But one thing is for certain: the Gophers played their finest game of the season against Wisconsin, and exacted a bit of revenge for a 27-point loss to the Badgers on Jan. 26.
Even more important, though, is what the win said about a club that’s struggled through one of the worst seasons in the short history of Big Ten women’s basketball. The Gophers finished the regular season with a 3-23 overall record, 1-15 in the conference.
“This team was ready to start a new season,” Hill-MacDonald said. “The Big Ten tournament is a new start, a new chapter. We closed the chapter after a 16-game Big Ten season, and we opened a new one today.”
At first, the storyline looked a little too familiar for Minnesota, which trailed the Badgers by double digits midway through the first half. But just as they had done all night, the Gophers stuck around.
With her team leading 36-25, Badgers guard Keisha Anderson picked up her third foul with 4:03 remaining and spent the rest of the half on the bench. In her absence, Minnesota went on a 10-3 run to close out the half and went to the locker room down by only four.
Wisconsin held a slim lead — no more than six points — for the first part of the second half. But with just over 12 minutes remaining and the Gophers down 56-50, Mindy Hansen and Sarah Klun keyed an 8-1 spurt that gave Minnesota its first lead of the game at 58-57 with 8:51 to play.
The two teams traded baskets, fouls and the lead over the next several minutes. Then Kiauna Burns, a freshman, took over. She scored 10 of Minnesota’s next 17 points and directed a 12-0 flurry that put the Gophers in control with less than a minute to go.
With Minnesota ahead 78-70, Anderson hit a desperation 3-pointer to cut the lead to five. The Gophers’ Jaime Ellis was fouled, but Iverson, seemingly anxious to add to her 15 rebound total, entered the lane before Ellis got off her first shot.
Iverson’s gaffe gave the ball back to Wisconsin and Anderson made good on a coast-to-coast slashing drive to the basket. That brought the Badgers to within three points with 23 seconds to play.
Once again, Minnesota looked to Burns for guidance. She took the inbounds pass, was fouled and hit the first of two free throws to give the Gophers a four-point margin. Wisconsin came up short on another 3-point attempt, Burns rebounded and hit one more free throw to cement the victory.
In addition to her 13 points, Burns had a career-high seven steals, including five in the first half.
“She was spectacular,” Hill-MacDonald said. “She proved today why she was one of the best freshmen in the conference. It’s a tough position to be in, playing in your first conference tournament, and she came through for us.”
After the game, Wisconsin coach Jane Albright-Dieterle called the loss the low point of her three-year career in Madison, Wisc.
“There’s no excuse for this one,” she said. “It’s a neutral court. You’ve got to have energy, you have to play smart, and we didn’t really do that. We looked like we didn’t have anything in us.”
The hand of God that apparently tightened around the Badgers’ throats loosened considerably for the Gophers’ second-round opponent, Illinois, on Saturday.
The Illini put a quick end to Minnesota’s extended vacation, winning 98-76. Illinois jumped out to a 10-0 lead and took a 24-point advantage into halftime. The Gophers outscored Illinois 51-49 in the second half, but never made a significant dent in the Illini lead.
Minnesota committed 40 turnovers — 29 in the first half — and allowed Illinois to notch a tournament record for points scored. Illinois freshman center Casey Leonhardt also set a record with five blocked shots.
“It was a disappointing game,” Hill-MacDonald said, “but not a disappointing tournament. We are very pleased to have reached the second round, and I think this gives us a lot to build on for next year.”

FRIDAY’S SUMMARY
Gophers 35 45 — 80
Wisconsin 39 36 — 75

SCORING: Hansen 8-14 2-4 19, Ellis 1-4 0-0 2, Burns 2-6 9-12 13, Klun 5-8 0-0 10, Iverson 5-10 6-8 16, Robinson 1-4 1-2 3, Hass 3-11 3-3 9, Seago 3-3 2-3 8.
REBOUNDS: Hansen 3, Ellis 2, Burns 3, Klun 3, Iverson 15, Robinson 3, Hass 4, Seago 1.
A — 4,548.

SATURDAY’S SUMMARY
Gophers 25 51 — 76
Illinois 49 49 — 98

SCORING: Hansen 8-19 0-1 17, Ellis 1-3 0-0 3, Burns 2-5 4-4 8, Klun 3-7 6-8 13, Iverson 8-18 6-6 22, Robinson 0-0 2-2 2, Hass 2-8 0-0 5, Seago 2-4 0-0 4, Nonginthirath 0-1 2-2 2, Blom 0-1 0-0 0, O’Hearn 0-0 0-0 0, Strommen 0-0 0-0 0.
REBOUNDS: Hansen 8, Ellis 2, Burns 3, Klun 4, Iverson 14, Robinson 4, Hass 3, Seago 3, Nonginthirath 0, Blom 1, O’Hearn 0, Strommen 0.
A — 4,285.