Gophers crush Wisconsin, will take on Penn State

Kiara Buford led the team with 19 points and Rachel Banham contributed a double-double.

Gophers senior Kiara Buford drives for two of her 16 points in the Gophers’ upset of Nebraska Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Gophers senior Kiara Buford drives for two of her 16 points in the Gophers’ upset of Nebraska Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

Betsy Helfand

Minnesota blew out Wisconsin 81-49 Thursday night for their first win in a Big Ten tournament game since 2007.

The No. 8 seeded Gophers (7-10 Big Ten) played one of their best games of the year in the first round of the tournament.

They came out aggressive and maintained a large lead over ninth seeded Wisconsin (5-12) throughout the game.

“[It was a] great team effort and gives us one more day to play together,” head coach Pam Borton said in her postgame press conference.

It was Minnesota’s first tournament win over the Badgers since 1997 and the Gophers improved their overall tournament record to 6-17.

Minnesota has struggled in road games this year, but at neutral site Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., they seemed to have found the energy and consistency that they frequently bring to home games.

The Gophers broke the game open just over midway through the first half.

They went on a 14-0 run, and turned a 14-15 Wisconsin lead to a 28-15 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

They finished the first half up 39-23, and started the second half with a 19-6 run.

Senior Kiara Buford came out aggressive and shot 5-of-6 in field goal attempts in the first half and scored 12 first half points.

“I thought Kiara really set the tone for our team with her defense and her attacking, and just really our team really fed off of her tonight,” Borton said.

Buford added seven second half points to finish as the game’s leading scorer with 19 points.  She shot 8-of-10 on the night.

Prior to tonight, her Big Ten tournament scoring high was just seven points. This is the first tournament win for the current senior class.

“I had a lot of goals at the beginning of the season, and this is one of them that I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to make sure before I went out as a senior that we had a good game here at the Big Ten tournament,” Buford said in the press conference.

The Gophers got double-digit scoring games from four players.

“[It was a] great win as a collective group. I thought we had great balance offensively,” Borton said.

 Aside from Buford, Freshman of the Year Rachel Banham, Kionna Kellogg, and Micaella Riche all scored at least 10 points.

Banham scored 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.

Kellogg also scored 11 points before fouling out with 4:50 left in the game.

Riche started for her second consecutive game in place of Katie Loberg. She finished the game with 10 points and eight rebounds.

This was the third straight game she has finished with 10 or more points, after never reaching the double-digit mark in her entire Minnesota career.

Katie Loberg, the team’s leading rebounder, as expected, returned on Thursday night. She was sidelined with a sprained ankle against Penn State on Feb. 26. 

She played 16 minutes. She scored nine points.

Jackie Voigt also contributed seven points in the effort.

“When we can get our post players to score, we usually win and win pretty big. And that’s probably been one of our weaknesses all year,” Borton said.

The Gophers scored more points in the paint — 50 — than Wisconsin did all night.

Loberg was quiet on the boards Thursday night, with just two rebounds, but the Gophers as a team outrebounded the Badgers 51-24.

Defense was one of the key differences from the last time the two teams faced off.

Wisconsin entered the game third in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage at .342, and that was evident the last time the two teams played.

Wisconsin beat Minnesota on Jan. 26 at Williams Arena; they shot 50% from both the field and three-point range.

In contrast, Minnesota’s defense on Thursday held Wisconsin to just 14-of-51 shooting on the night. Before Thursday, Minnesota had lost the past six times the two teams faced off.

With the win, the Gophers will take on the top seeded Penn State on Friday.

The Gophers have lost twice to No. 9 Penn State this season. They lost a game that barely got away on Feb. 5 68-65.

More recently, they got blown out in University Park, Pa. 74-51 to close out the regular season on Feb. 26.

Tipoff is at 5:00 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.