Minnesota will face Illini seeking balance

Thursday is Senior Night at Williams Arena.

Gophers senior Kiara Buford drives for two of her 16 points in the Gophers’ upset of Nebraska on Monday at Williams Arena.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Gophers’ senior Kiara Buford drives for two of her 16 points in the Gophers’ upset of Nebraska on Monday at Williams Arena.

by Betsy Helfand

When Kiara Buford steps onto the court Thursday night against Illinois, it will be her last home game as a member of the Gophers.

“It’s going to be bittersweet. I’m sad that it’s ending, but … I’ve had a good time here,” Buford said.

Buford is not the only senior on the team — she’s one of four — but her departure will undoubtedly hurt Minnesota the most.

She is a leader and stabilizing force on the team. She starts every game at shooting guard, leads the team in steals and assists and is second in minutes per game and points per game.

“When I’m just breaking down, I always look at her, and she just kind of takes over,” freshman point guard Rachel Banham said. “I think having someone to look up to and do that for you when you need someone helps a lot.”

Buford scored 26 points the last time she played the Illini, but it wasn’t enough, as Minnesota fell 72-67 on Feb. 2.

Banham contributed 18 points, and Katie Loberg pitched in 15 in the loss, but the Gophers failed to keep up with a more balanced Illini team in Champaign, Ill.

Similar to their last matchup against Illinois, the Gophers are coming off an upset win at home. 

“I think we just need to play consistent; I think we’ve proven we can play with anybody,” head coach Pam Borton said.

Minnesota got significant defensive contributions from Kionna Kellogg and Brianna Mastey in Monday’s win over No. 16 Nebraska. Each pulled down 11 boards.

Rebounding contributions from Kellogg and Mastey were critical for the Gophers, who usually rely heavily on Buford and Banham.

“We have to rebound, we have to defend. I think those are the two biggest things,” Borton said. “In the last five or six games we haven’t done a great job on the boards.”

Loberg, the team’s leading rebounder, has just 22 rebounds in the team’s past five games. Loberg averages 6.6 rebounds per game.

Illinois (4-8 Big Ten) sits third to last in the standings but is coming off two wins, including a 66-65 comeback win at home over then-No. 10 Ohio State.

For Minnesota (5-8) to win Thursday — and beyond —Borton said the team needs to consistently play like it did Monday.

“The team that played last night needs to show up every night, and that’s as a collective group; it can’t just be Rachel, it can’t just be [Buford] tugging the whole team along,” Borton said.

Minnesota will honor seniors Buford, Mastey, her twin sister Nicole Mastey and Jackie Voigt in a post-game ceremony Thursday.