Minnesota beats Northwestern for fourth straight win

Rachel Banham has played all but one minute during the winning streak.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham sets up a play against Loyola at Williams Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Daily File Photo, Holly Peterson

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham sets up a play against Loyola at Williams Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota hadn’t won four straight conference games since 2008-09 — the last season it made the NCAA tournament.

That changed Saturday in the Gophers’ 82-64 win at Northwestern.

“They’ve got that winning feeling,” head coach Pam Borton told reporters after the game. “We just have a real positive vibe going on with this team.”

Rachel Banham is perhaps the biggest reason Minnesota (17-9, 6-6 Big Ten) has worked its way into sixth place in the conference and also into the NCAA tournament picture.

She’s played 159 of 160 possible minutes during the four-game winning streak. The lone minute Banham sat was with her team up double digits Saturday behind her 32 points.

Banham said before the season’s start that she worked on strengthening her legs over the summer to prepare for the grueling season.

She’s needed it.

“I’m pretty used to it, but sometimes I can feel my body’s wearing out a bit,” Banham said last week of playing the entire game against Illinois. “I’m trying to take the least amount of reps in practice and take it easy.”

Lately, the Gophers have especially needed Banham, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, because of a mass of injuries.

Shayne Mullaney hasn’t played since a January loss to Iowa due to concussion-like symptoms. Jackie Johnson partially tore the ACL in her left knee at Wisconsin last week and is out for the season. In the same game, Stabresa McDaniel left with concussion-like symptoms.

That’s left the Gophers — who don’t have any walk-ons — with just seven players.

Banham said the injuries are a big concern for the team, but Minnesota is still winning against mediocre Big Ten opponents.

The Gophers’ winning streak includes Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Northwestern — all of which occupy the bottom half of the conference standings.

A win against one of the top teams in the Big Ten would go a long way in solidifying the Gophers’ tournament chances.

Banham’s been spectacular, but Minnesota’s post presence has also been instrumental in the four-game winning streak.

Kayla Hirt is now starting at power forward to stretch the floor. She had 16 points and eight rebounds Saturday.

Amanda Zahui B. has benefited greatly from Hirt’s shooting presence, which has opened up the paint. Zahui B. tallied 16 points and a career-high 18 rebounds in the win.

Minnesota outrebounded Northwestern 49-33 in the win.

Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown told reporters after the game that his team didn’t have a sense of urgency on the glass.

“I saw for the first time in every player that was on the floor a little killer instinct,” Borton told reporters after the game. “There was no way they were going to lose this game.”