Before anyone gets too excited about the Minnesota women’s basketball team’s season-opening 67-63 win over Illinois State, let’s get a few things straight.
Neither team was very good last season. The Redbirds were 11-16 last year and lost by 20 to a Russian club-team a week ago, while Minnesota was 4-23 in Cheryl Littlejohn’s first season.
That said, the Gophers had Illinois State coaches wondering what team they were playing, after the Redbirds beat Minnesota by 15 points last season.
“They play much better together and more confident on offense,” coach Jill Hutchison said.
The Gophers had six players score eight points or more, with no one scoring more than 10 points.
But the first half was anything but confident for either team; in fact, it was brutal. The Gophers and Redbirds combined for 26 turnovers. That statistic — along with Minnesota’s woeful 29.4 field goal percentage — made for some scary basketball.
“We’re going to have a contest to see if we have as many turnovers as field goals,” Hutchison said. “And we’re reaching that point.”
But the story of the game was the second half. Down by seven at the intermission, the Gophers picked up their defense to shut down the Redbirds’ Jenny Schmidt. Schmidt had 15 points in the first half, but finished the game with 19.
“Everybody made a focus,” Minnesota junior Erin Olson said, “that she wouldn’t be the one to beat us.”
The game was tight going into the last three minutes, when senior Swantreca Taylor was fouled taking the ball upcourt. The call elicited a brief arm-pumping celebration from Minnesota coach Cheryl Littlejohn. Taylor sunk both free throws to put the Gophers up 63-57.
But the breathing room didn’t last. With the score at 65-63, Minnesota in-bounded the ball on the Illinois State side of the court, where they were swarmed by the Redbird defense. With the shot clock at 18 seconds, a referee’s whistle blew, and the paltry crowd sat still in anticipation of a 10-second violation against the Gophers.
But for once luck was on Minnesota’s side; a foul was called on Illinois State.
Olson went to the foul line and hit the two foul shots that sealed the Gophers’ first season-opening win since 1994.
“It’s just one win, it’s not 10 or 12,” Littlejohn said. “We can celebrate temporarily but we have to rest up for this weekend.”
Minnesota will travel to Hawaii on Wednesday for games with Hawaii on Friday, No. 11 Kansas on Saturday, and Massachusetts on Sunday.