by Murali Balaji

When asked about her team’s two losses on the road last weekend, Gophers forward Sonja Robinson frowned.
Her expression was more of an indication of how far the womens’ basketball team has come, and how much higher the standards have been set for this season.
Last season, even a competitive loss would have given Minnesota (7-12, 2-7 Big Ten) a glimmer of satisfaction and hope. Not this year.
“The most important thing right now is that we look at where we were last year and how much we’ve improved,” Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “We’ve got to keep our attitude and stay hungry for wins.”
The steady, consistent play Robinson has brought to the team is one of the main reasons the Gophers continue to strive for improvement. The 5-foot-11 senior scored a career-high 20 points in a 73-58 loss to Michigan State last Friday in Lansing.
With the team struggling to maintain its intensity for two full halves, Robinson has asserted herself as the fulcrum of emotion around which the team revolves. Robinson’s aggressive, relentless effort is a model that the team is trying to emulate in practice and in games.
“It’s the same problem we’ve had — we play in spurts,” she said. “The key is keeping our intensity on both ends. As long as we come out ready to play, we can compete with anybody.”
Illinois (12-7, 6-3) will be a gauge of the Gophers’ defensive abilities. The Illini are the conference’s highest-scoring team and are coming off an 82-60 dismantling of Michigan State.
Illini forwards Susan Blauser and Alicia Sheeler have rarely been contained in the low post, giving the Gophers frontcourt one of its most daunting challenges this season.
Enter first-year center Kim Bell. The 6-foot-7 Bell blocked 10 shots last weekend, grabbing a career-high 10 rebounds in Sunday’s 68-42 loss to Ohio State.
“Kim Bell has improved every day in practice and is really starting to show her improvement in games,” Littlejohn said. “You look at Kim Bell, (guard) Cassie VanderHeyden and (forward) Jackie Tate, and these are all young players who are really contributing to our team right now.”
While Bell will try to find a way to defend against Blauser and Sheeler, the Gophers must also deal with Illini guard Tauja Catchings. Catchings is considered one of the best dribble-penetrators in the Big Ten, and the Gophers’ ability to contain the inside lane rests on Bell and her frontcourt mates Robinson and Brandi Harris.
“(Robinson and Harris) are good at helping on the outside,” Bell said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to do a good job defensively.”