Gophers have chance at middle of Big Ten pack

by Sarah Mitchell

The Minnesota women’s basketball team has more to play for than just a win in today’s home game against No. 17 Purdue.
A win would snap one of the program’s long-standing losing streaks. The Gophers (8-10 overall, 1-6 Big Ten) have lost 21 straight Big Ten home games, a feat that is now running into its fourth season.
And a win could move Minnesota from its sole possession of last place in conference standings. In a league of parity, the Gophers are only several victories away from the middle of the pack. The group in the middle includes the Boilermakers (12-5, 4-3), who are tied for fifth with Wisconsin.
While there is incentive to win, Minnesota has nothing on the line, either.
“We don’t have anything to lose,” Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “We’re not going to impress. More than anything we all have to be on the same page.”
In recent matchups versus Purdue, the Gophers have been in sync — they can’t get any closer than they have already been to the Boilermakers.
During Purdue’s title run last season, Minnesota dropped a home game to the Boilermakers by just two points.
Then there was this season’s contest, a game that was not as competitive as the score indicates.
During a mid-January road trip, the Gophers fell 77-60 to their Big Ten foe. Minnesota’s slow start — Purdue spent the game’s first nine minutes mounting a 17-1 run — played the spoiler.
“We weren’t able to handle their pressure,” Littlejohn said. “We also didn’t eliminate their second and third shots.”
Purdue is not as intimidating as it was a year ago. Besides losing two All-Americans in Ukari Figgs and Stephanie White-McCarty, the Boilermakers have been slowed by a tough nonconference schedule, facing the likes of Tennessee and Loisiana Tech.
Despite that, the Boilermakers travel to Minnesota on a three-game winning streak, all conference victories.
“We’ve really picked up our defensive intensity the past week,” said Boilermakers first-year coach Kristy Curry. “We’re living in the present. This is a new team and a new year.”
Boilermakers junior Katie Douglas has made the transition nicely. Douglas earned this week’s Big Ten player of the week honor after averaging 23 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals per game last week.
“Katie’s a creator. Katie’s a scorer. Katie’s a rebounder,” Littlejohn said. “We’re just going to try to play her straight up. She’s very deceptive. She’s a good defensive player, as well as offensive player.”
Minnesota depends on a more balanced scoring attack. In Sunday’s 80-57 nonconference defeat of Indiana-Purdue, five Gophers scored in double figures.
The attack was led by sophomore point guard Cassie VanderHeyden. Playing with a hyperextended elbow to her left, non-shooting arm, VanderHeyden posted a season-high 23 points.
“We’re at the bottom (of the Big Ten). We need more than one or two people to contribute,” Littlejohn said. “(On Sunday) we were on the same page. Everyone who came of the bench was effective.”
As Minnesota prepares for today’s game, the bench might be the biggest concern. Littlejohn said the team has just six healthy bodies.
While the Gophers have fewer women in the trenches than they would like, Minnesota does have motivation to make this game war.
“We’ll be looking forward to coming in (the Sports Pavilion) and taking care of business,” Littlejohn said.

Sarah Mitchell covers women’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]