Close one gives 0-phers confidence vs. Buckeyes

Aaron Kirscht

The Gophers women’s basketball team has failed to beat Ohio State in their last eight tries, including a pair of blowouts last season. But the 1997 version of the Buckeyes, the Gophers’ opponent tonight, is not the same as the team that beat Minnesota handily a year ago.
After winning its Big Ten opener against Michigan, Ohio State has lost four straight conference games. The Buckeyes stand at 9-6 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten, a record only one game better than Minnesota’s (0-5).
But Gophers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald said Ohio State’s conference record is not reflective of the team’s quality. The losses have come against some of the Big Ten’s top teams: Iowa, Illinois, Michigan State and Northwestern.
“They’ve had a rough start in the Big Ten,” Hill-MacDonald said, “but I wouldn’t say they’re down. They look really solid this year.”
To make matters worse, Minnesota will have to handle the Ohio State fans, which Hill-MacDonald called “hostile.” The Buckeyes draw nearly 4,000 fans per game, and hold a 6-2 record at home.
It doesn’t look good for Minnesota, a team stuck in a 27-game Big Ten losing streak. But things looked even worse a week ago, and the Gophers nearly toppled heavily favored Illinois before losing in overtime.
The Gophers spent time in practice this week working on their pressure defense, something Hill-MacDonald targeted as a trouble spot for the Buckeyes when she scouted them earlier this season.
“We can’t (play full court defense) for 40 minutes,” she said, “but we may throw it in there once in a while, just to throw them off a little bit.”
The game with Illinois has become something of a benchmark for the Gophers. Hill-MacDonald said her team gained some confidence from sticking with a superior team.
“I think that’s a good game to reflect back on,” she said. “There were lots of things we could have done better, but from start to finish it was a pretty good sustained effort for us.”
Minnesota will need a similar performance if they hope to beat Northwestern on Sunday with its roster full of shooters. Let them get comfortable, and they will light up the Pavilion scoreboard.
“The shooters go crazy,” Hill-MacDonald said. “You can see it in their eyes.”
Three of their starters are averaging more than 16 points per game, and Northwestern averages 80 points per game — 17 more than the Gophers. That presents a formidable defensive challenge for the Gophers, but one for which Hill-MacDonald said her team is ready.
“I’ve been pleased with our defense at times,” she said. “We’ve been able to minimize the influence of some of the big inside players in the conference.
“But against Northwestern there are so many threats, so you have to play solid defense all around.”
The Wildcats are known for their accuracy from the perimeter, but they’re also tough inside. Center Katrina Hannaford could pose some match-up problems for the Gophers.
“It’s going to be a good test for us,” Hill-MacDonald said, “to see if we can extend the defense all over the floor.”
For a team as far down as the Gophers, every game is a struggle. And the pressure of a losing streak only increases the weight on the Gophers’ shoulders.
“If we can play like we did last week, it’s definitely a doable thing,” Hill-MacDonald said. “We just need to execute and put together two halves of good basketball.”