Minn. struggling to find identity, consistency

by John Hageman

The Gophers arenâÄôt who we thought they were, although weâÄôre still not sure who they are.

The Gophers (5-4) have shown signs of improvement from a disastrous 2009 season in their handful of nonconference games thus far, with a shooting percentage thatâÄôs back to respectable after a year in the statistical dungeon.

But the Gophers have also shown signs of weakness. Their 103-56 dismantling at the hands of mighty No. 2 Baylor may have been expected, but proved that the Gophers are a ways away from being a top-tier squad.

TheyâÄôve shown the ability to come back from deficits and hold on to leads, a sign of maturity in a young squad. But theyâÄôve also proven inconsistent, shooting the lights out in one half only to lose track of the rim on the other side of halftime.

A theme for the season has been hard to glean.

After three four-team tournaments and two cross-conference challenges, the Gophers are in the home stretch of their non-conference schedule, starting with a visit from Southern on Thursday night.

Minnesota head coach Pam Borton said her team is in better shape than when the season started, but as always, thereâÄôs room for improvement.

âÄúWeâÄôre pleased, but there are a lot of things we need to clean up before we play the Big Ten,âÄù Borton said, citing defensive, rebounding and turnover struggles. âÄúWe have to decide what team weâÄôre going to be and I think weâÄôre still in the process of molding that.âÄù

Even before the first whistle at their opening practice in October, Borton stressed the importance for the Gophers to establish a post presence early and often. The Gophers have remained inconsistent in that regard.

After falling behind Baylor early, Borton said her team got impatient and looked to pull up from outside, a habit that had the Gophers at the bottom of the conference with a 37 percent field goal percentage last season.

The Gophers have remained steady at around a .453 shooting percentage this season, largely thanks to taking more shots from inside, something that was missing against Baylor.

âÄúI thought our patience was tested a little bit,âÄù Borton said. âÄúUs not being able to get the ball inside, especially with [Brittney] Griner guarding us inside âĦ We need to get back to where our focus was at the beginning of the year.âÄù

Losing starting center Katie Loberg for stretches at a time has been part of the problem. Loberg remains day-to-day with a minor Achilles injury and Borton said she doesnâÄôt want to take any chances by rushing her back.

The Gophers have at least stayed competitive against formidable foes until the drubbing they suffered over the weekend, which was a glaring blemish that came at a time when the team is still finding their identity.

But perhaps the loss against Baylor over the weekend wasnâÄôt a waste of a Sunday afternoon for the Gophers. Borton, who said Baylor was the best team she had ever coached against, said the Lady Bears set the bar for where the Gophers want to be in the future.

And maybe more than that, it was a useful, albeit grueling, character-building exercise for a young team. âÄúItâÄôs tough. I havenâÄôt really been in that situation,âÄù senior Kristen Dockery said of their 53-23 deficit at halftime Sunday. âÄúIt was a new challenge. âĦ We all had to try to keep our energy up and try to get better.âÄù

The Gophers start their final stretch of non-conference tune-ups when they host Southern at 7 p.m. Thursday and then Cal Poly on Sunday at 2 p.m.