Gophers hoping for late run to tourney

Rachel Banham has never played in a NCAA tournament game in her career.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham looks up court while shielding the ball from Northwestern guard Ashley Deary at Williams Arena on Jan. 20, where the Gophers won 95-92.

Sam Harper, Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham looks up court while shielding the ball from Northwestern guard Ashley Deary at Williams Arena on Jan. 20, where the Gophers won 95-92.

Kaitlin Merkel

Rachel Banham has broken Minnesota’s career-points record, tied an NCAA single-game record with 60 points and hit a buzzer-beating 3-point shot her redshirt senior year.
But there’s one thing missing on her long list of accomplishments: an NCAA tournament appearance.
 
 
“That’s just been my goal the whole time,” Banham said. “We’ve got to get there. … We’re beating really good teams, and we’re doing it with last-second shots or overtimes, and we’re still coming out with the win.”
 
 
Banham has never played in an NCAA tournament because she was forced to watch from the bench last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament as the Gophers lost in the first round to DePaul.
 
 
Head coach Marlene Stollings said a tournament appearance would be the perfect end to Banham’s collegiate career after she returned this season after an 11-month rehab process.
 
 
“It’s set up here for a storybook ending if we can keep winning,” Stollings said. “I’m just so proud of Rachel, coming back from what she’s been through and performing at the level that she’s performing. It’s unprecedented on many levels.”
 
 
The Gophers currently rank 76th in the NCAA ratings percentage index, which measures a team’s record and strength of schedule and is factored in when selecting teams for the NCAA tournament.
 
 
Minnesota (18-7, 10-4) has four remaining games in the regular season, three of which are on the road. The team will end the season playing three consecutive ranked teams.
 
 
“It’s real important that we stay urgent and focus. … We have a tough part of the schedule remaining, and we’re very well aware of that,” Stollings said. “We say, ‘No one cares about your story until you win, so just win.’ We have that hanging in our locker room.”
 
 
The Gophers will need a strong finish to the regular season and a good showing in the Big Ten tournament to crack the NCAA bubble, but senior guard Mikayla Bailey said the team wants to make it for Banham.
 
 
“We know what we have our eyes set on and our goal, and that’s to make it to the NCAA tournament,” Bailey said. “Rachel’s an incredible basketball player, a great leader, and she’s really carried our team thus far. … She deserves all these moments, and we’re going to make it to the tournament for her.”
 
 
Minnesota is on a four-game winning streak heading into its last four regular season games and has won eight of its last nine games. The Gophers are also third in the Big Ten standings.
 
 
“We’re just starting to see the bigger picture, and our defense is coming together. We’re smoother on the court, and we’re communicating a lot more,” Gophers sophomore Carlie Wagner said. “We’re peaking at the right time, and it’s showing on the court right now the way we’ve been playing and winning some close games.”
 
 
Banham said an NCAA tournament appearance would cap off all her comeback year milestones if the team can make it.
 
 
“I never expected anything like this, and I can’t even explain it. It’s been so crazy and weird, and it just keeps happening,” Banham said. “I hope that we can continue to stay on this high the rest of the year.”