Road woes raise defensive concerns for women’s hoops

Aaron Blake

As her team was preparing for a stretch in which five of its next six games would be on the road, first year Minnesota women’s basketball coach Pam Borton reminisced about something she was told about her new conference.

“When I first got here, everyone was talking about how tough it is to win on the road in the Big Ten,” Borton said. “When I asked the other coaches, they told me it’s the environments.

“I think it’s a mentality, and that’s what I want to get through to my players. I don’t care if we’re on the road; we’re still going to play hard, execute and play tough defense.”

By all accounts, Borton’s team struggled with all three of these goals, losing a pair of road games at Michigan State and Illinois to drop to 15-3 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten.

Incidentally, the Gophers’ first loss came on the road as well. Minnesota was blown out by Penn State 83-53 in their initial Big Ten road test Jan. 6.

Altogether, this means Pam Borton has yet to overcome the road in the Big Ten.

“We get on the road, and it’s like black and white,” Borton said. “When things don’t go well, it’s normal to revert back to bad habits. We just tried to outscore teams in the last couple games.”

Against Michigan State, things didn’t go well on the defensive glass. The Spartans front line collected 18 offensive rebounds and kept itself close enough to grab and hold the lead in the final minutes.

The Illini, it seemed, beat the Gophers at their own game. The offensive style that ranks Minnesota second in the nation in points per game and field-goal percentage gave Illinois layup after layup and allowed speedy forward Aminata Yanni to drop 30 points on the maroon and gold.

While each game was lost in its own manner, anyone who glances at the box scores will notice a common thread: sub-par offensive outputs from Naismith National Player of the Year candidate Lindsay Whalen.

The seven points she managed against Michigan State was her lowest total since her freshman season, and most of her 13 points against the Illini came after a sizable deficit had been built.

“She gets by somebody and she’s got two more defenders right there with her,” Borton said.

Nonetheless, neither Borton nor Whalen is concerned.

With Borton pressing her defensive mentality early and often into the psyches of her team, Whalen knows when the shots aren’t falling or available, her defense and passing can still help the team win.

“There’s no need for me to force shots over people,” the nation’s sixth-leading scorer said. “I forced things offensively and defensively the last two games.

“Any time a game is competitive, you try to find ways to make something happen and change the tide.”

Unable to make anything happen in the final minutes versus the Spartans or change the tide against Illinois, the Gophers now have until Feb. 6 to contemplate their Big Ten road woes. Minnesota hosts Northwestern on Sunday after a bye Thursday.

“(The road) doesn’t scare me,” Borton said. “We’ve just got to find ways to get more out of this team on the defensive end. We have to find a way to get it done, because we’re going to Ohio State next week.”

So while her team prepares for the Wildcats on Sunday, the Gophers still have an eye on their next chance at a Big Ten road game to prevent further blemishes on an otherwise perfect season.

Aaron Blake covers women’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]