Olson leads surging women’s hoops

by Mark Heller

There are now long-missing signs that the Minnesota women’s basketball season has hope.
Two weeks ago the notion might have been looked upon as far-fetched, if not absurd.
“The last two weeks we’ve been through a lot,” Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “But you have to execute over the emotions, and that’s what we’ve done. We had three options: go forward, stay the same or go backward.”
Versatile senior Erin Olson leads the team’s retooling, and her efforts paid off early this week when she was named the Big Ten player of the week. In her last three games, Olson averaged 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game.
Littlejohn called Olson’s award a “big accomplishment,” but was quick to note that the praise doesn’t stop there.
With the losses of Antoinetta Blevins and Trish McGhee, and the retirement of Natea Motley, the Gophers’ depth has become shallow.
In trying to take advantage of Minnesota’s supposed shortage of players — especially ball-handlers — opposing teams have tried using a full-court press to force turnovers and wear down a thin team.
There have been three problems with the strategy: sophomore Cassie VanderHeyden, freshman Lindsay Lieser and senior Moneeke Bowden.
VanderHeyden and Lieser are the starting backcourt and average 22 points per game between them. The duo has combined for 53 three-pointers in nine games.
“We played on an AAU team the summer after my senior year,” VanderHeyden said. “We knew we’d have a nice zone-busting duo.”
The recent emergence of Bowden in the post has lifted the team’s poor rebounding from earlier this season. In Friday’s win over South Alabama, she scored 17 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. On Sunday, she had 11 rebounds.
Pick your poison.
“Moneeke played so well on Friday night,” Olson said. “She took over that game. Every opponent looks at that game tape and those stats and says, ‘hold on.’ You can come out and play the three and the guards against us, but she’ll exploit you inside. She, Kim Bell, and Kim Prince all did the job (last) weekend.
“That’ll be the key to our success down the road. You can play us outside but that gives our post players a lot of one-on-one looks. If you pack it inside against our post, Cassie and Lindsay are going to knock the threes down.”
St. Louis (5-1) comes to town today for the Gophers’ last game before finals. After losing a few games it should have won, Minnesota (5-4) reeled off three wins in a row. A win tonight at the Sports Pavilion would be the longestwinning streak since this time in 1994.
“I definitely think some teams have written us off,” Littlejohn said. “They chalk up a win when they see Minnesota on the schedule. We can do a lot more than what people expect us to accomplish.”

Mark Heller covers women’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]