Gophers slide into Big Ten tourney

Coach acknowledges team’s problems in adjusting to life without Whalen.

Dan Miller

In a roller coaster season, Minnesota’s women’s basketball team finds itself at a low point in its highly anticipated ride.

The 18th-ranked Gophers, who climbed their way to sixth in the nation early in the season, enter the first round of the Big Ten Tournament with growing pains tonight.

The Gophers (20-7, 9-7 Big Ten) play 11th-seeded Northwestern (8-19, 1-15) at approximately 7 p.m. in the first round.

“We have kind of lost a lot of what we had at the beginning of the year with (the) confidence and the swagger we had,” center Janel McCarville said. “We are going to be going in as underdogs Ö and I think that is the way we have to play from now on.”

Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer, went down in a game against Ohio State on Feb. 12 with two broken bones in her hand.

Minnesota coach Pam Borton said that since the event her players have had to grow into new roles. But Wednesday she re-emphasized that the Gophers are simply not the same team without Whalen. She said the players are having a lot of problems playing outside their normal positions.

Without Whalen, who was the main threat in the Gophers’ motion offense, Minnesota has struggled to score. Teams have attacked the Gophers with full- and half-court pressure defense and thrown them out of their offensive rhythm.

Much of that pressure has fallen on sophomore point guard Shannon Schonrock, who is now the Gophers’ only experienced ball handler.

“There’s probably going to be a lot of pressure in the Big Ten Tournament,” Schonrock said. “But whatever we face, we just have to take it at them.”

The Gophers have failed to get many open looks in Whalen’s absence. They not only miss her 20 points per game, but also her 4.8 assists and her ability to penetrate and get players open shots.

New roles were imminent when Whalen went down, but the Gophers are now realizing how important she was to the team.

“I don’t want to take anything away from the players, but I think Lindsay helped make them what they are,” Borton said.

The aches and pains of the adjustment were rested Monday and Tuesday as the players were given their first consecutive days off since the preseason.

Before stepping onto the Williams Arena court Wednesday for practice, McCarville said she felt more spring in her step.

“I can’t wait to get out on the court,” she said. “I haven’t done anything in two days. I feel like a pogo stick right now.”

McCarville and the Gophers need a big bounce tonight against Northwestern to get their roller coaster car to climb upward again.

“Lately, we’ve been at the bottom,” McCarville said. “So we don’t have anywhere to go but up.”

Gophers’ tourney history

The last two years the Gophers have had first-round byes in the Big Ten Tournament. They had the third seed in 2002 and the second seed in 2003.

Last year the Gophers lost their first game of the tournament to seventh-seeded Iowa 80-77 before going on to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16.

The NCAA selection committee will be evaluating Minnesota’s performance in the Big Ten Tournament and the probability of Whalen returning for the first round of the NCAA tournament.