Gophers’ WNIT hopes remain after upset falls short

Top-seeded Penn State knocked Minnesota out of the Big 10 tournament.

Minnesota guard Kiara Buford goes up for a basket against Nebraska Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Kiara Buford goes up for a basket against Nebraska Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

Betsy Helfand

The Gophers fell just short of pulling off an impressive upset of No. 9 Penn State on Friday in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, losing 78-74.

The loss eliminated Minnesota from the Big Ten tournament after it had played two of its best games of the season. Purdue won the title.

Friday’s loss came just a day after eighth-seeded Minnesota wiped out ninth-seeded Wisconsin 81-49.

It was the Gophers’ third loss of the season to Penn State. In two of those games, Minnesota held a halftime lead.

The Gophers carried momentum from Thursday’s game into the first half Friday when it outscored Penn State 36-29.

“Whenever you can get that big of a win on your first night, you obviously have a little bit of momentum,” point guard Rachel Banham said in Friday’s postgame press conference.

The Gophers went on runs of 8-0 and 9-0 in the first half.

Shooting guard Kiara Buford  started the game by scoring six points in just four minutes and finished with 19 points.

But the Gophers faltered defensively in the second half, and ultimately that was their downfall.

Penn State opened the second half on a 16-2 run and never looked back.

“I felt like we came out of the locker room and weren’t as aggressive. [We were] a little tentative,” head coach Pam Borton said. “[We] stopped doing some of the things that we did defensively in the first half to really set the tone in the second half.”

Minnesota hung tough with the Lady Lions the whole game, out-shooting and out-rebounding them, but could not scrape together a late second-half run to take over the game.

The team crept to within four points with a little more than two minutes left, but after trading baskets with Penn State for a minute and a half, the Gophers had to resort to fouling the first player who gained possession of the ball.

They retained a glimmer of hope when the Lady Lions’ Alex Bentley missed three of four free throws down the stretch.

A long 3-pointer by Banham brought the score to 76-74, but Maggie Lucas eventually put the game away with two free throws with four seconds left.

“[I was] very proud of our team’s effort today. We fought. I thought we battled until the very end,” Borton said.

Borton has stressed balanced scoring as a key to success all season, and the Gophers got that in both Big Ten tournament games.

Although Banham and Buford led the scoring in both games, the team had four players in double-digits in each game — a rarity this season.

Banham led all scorers and rebounders Friday with 25 points and nine rebounds, just a day after she finished with an 11-point, 10-rebound performance.

Buford finished with 19 points both Thursday and Friday. Her previous Big Ten tournament-high was seven points.

“I had a lot of goals at the beginning of the season, and this is one of them that I wanted to accomplish,” Buford said Thursday, referring to winning a Big Ten tournament game.

This year’s senior class had not won a tournament game before this year.

“I wanted to make sure before I went out as a senior that we had a good game here at the Big Ten tournament,” Buford said.

Seniors Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt also contributed 10 points apiece Friday.

With the team’s NCAA tournament hopes likely dashed, Borton said that the team is holding out hope that it can earn a bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

The team with the top record in each major conference that does not make it to the NCAA Tournament earns an automatic bid to the WNIT.

Borton said that she thought the seven teams in front of Minnesota “should get in [to the NCAA Tournament], hands-down.”

The WNIT field will be announced March 12, after NCAA berths are announced.