Gophers boost NCAA chances with upset victory

Minnesota defeated No. 7 Penn State 89-81 at home in its second-to-last game of the regular season.

Samuel Gordon

The Gophers women’s basketball team has longed for a marquee win all season. And with the team’s postseason chances quickly fading, it couldn’t have picked a better time to get one.

Minnesota upset No. 7 Penn State 89-81 on Thursday’s Senior Night at Williams Arena.

The Gophers will conclude their regular season at Indiana on Sunday, and a win, coupled with a run in the Big Ten tournament, could put them in play for an NCAA Tournament berth.

“We’ve been in this situation many times this season, going into the last four minutes with a lead,” head coach Pam Borton said. “We were able to finish the game. Great win for our program.”

Minnesota’s struggles in close games contributed to its 5-9 start to Big Ten play.

But the Gophers played their best game of the season Thursday with former star Lindsay Whalen in attendance. Four players scored in double-figures for Minnesota, which shot 67 percent from the field.

Forward-center Micaëlla Riché owned the paint with 24 points. She was able to establish deep post position on most possessions, and she finished 9-for-10 from the floor.

“When you have a post presence inside that’s able to score like that, you’re tough to beat,” Borton said.

Riché’s dominance inside opened up the floor for Minnesota’s guards. Rachel Banham scored 23 points and handed out seven assists. Sari Noga made six three-pointers and scored 19 points, both career-highs.

“I was on and I felt it,” Noga said. “When I had my open opportunities, I took the shot.”

The Gophers turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, but they held a 37-36 halftime lead thanks to 68 percent shooting.

Penn State guard Maggie Lucas put the Nittany Lions on top with a four-point play on their opening possession in the second half. Banham answered with her own four-point play, but the game turned ugly after that with a series of fouls.

Minnesota picked up its seventh team foul less than five minutes into the second half, putting Penn State in the bonus. The Nittany Lions were in the double bonus less than two minutes later.

The fouls slowed the pace of the game, and Minnesota adjusted. Riché scored five straight points and Noga made a three-pointer to give the Gophers an 11-point lead.

The Gophers led by 13 before an issue with the clock caused an approximate 10-minute delay.

Penn State trimmed the deficit to six, but Gophers guard Shayne Mullaney made six straight free throws to extend the lead again. Mullaney finished with 10 points.

Lucas, a frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year, finished with 23 points on 10-for-24 shooting.

Riché said ESPN announcer Mike Tirico gave the team a pep talk before Thursday’s game, which gave it a boost.

“It gets tough when you go on losing streaks and stuff,” Riché said. “This can be the beginning of a big run.”