Big Ten Tournament border battle up next as Gophers look to make statement

Minnesota lost earlier this season to Wisconsin 78-72 at Williams Arena.

Gophers senior Kiara Buford drives for two of her 16 points in the Gophers’ upset of Nebraska Feb. 13 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 Feb. 13 at Williams Arena.

by Betsy Helfand

Coming off two of its largest defeats of the season on the road against the Big Ten’s two top teams, Minnesota will try to avenge its losses this weekend.

The stage has gotten bigger, as the team heads to Indianapolis to take on Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

“I’ve said to the team that we could have played those two games anywhere in our schedule, and we probably still would have lost,” head coach Pam Borton said.

The team is trying to learn from the losses to then-No.8 Ohio State and then-No. 11 Penn State.

Shooting guard Kiara Buford suggested that playing Ohio State and Penn State prepared them better than playing a Big Ten bottom-feeder.

“I think that’s going to get us ready, get us mentally prepared [for the tournament]. We watched a lot of film, we know what we need to do better,” Buford said.

Buford said if the team had played an easier game, it potentially might not have been “fully ready” and “fully locked in.”

The focus now, Borton said, is on the Big Ten tournament and “staying positive, really having our players believe that they’re good [and that] we have a good basketball team. … There’s a certain way we need to play as a team in order to win.”

The Gophers have gone 1-7 on the road in Big Ten games and have often times looked lackluster away from home. Luckily for them, the tournament will be on a neutral court.

“Everybody in the league plays different on the road than they do at home. I think that’s pretty obvious,” Borton said. “I think we’re in a good mindset right now heading into the Big Ten tournament.”

All tournament games will be played at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 1-4. The Gophers are 2-3 in neutral-site games — all five games came in nonconference play.

Minnesota is the No. 8 seed in the tournament (6-10 Big Ten) and will take on No. 9 seeded Wisconsin (5-11). The winner of that game will play Penn State, the conference’s top seed.

The Gophers suffered arguably their worst home Big Ten loss against the Badgers, falling 78-72 on Jan. 26. The team has just two other Big Ten home losses and even though one was by a larger margin, both of the losses came against ranked teams.

Borton acknowledged both offensive and defensive problems after looking at film from the team’s loss to Wisconsin.

“I thought we were our own worst enemy,” Borton said. “I think we took a lot of bad shots in that game. We took a lot of quick shots.

“I think defensively we’ve got to be able to have a more defensive mindset, lock teams down and just really put pressure on other teams,” Borton said.

Wisconsin was anchored by strong three-point shooting in that game, especially in the first half, when it shot a collective 7-for-11 from beyond the arc. Three Badgers scored 18 points or more.

Katie Loberg, the team’s leading rebounder, sat out against Penn State with an ankle sprain, but Borton said she expects to have her back Thursday.

“No matter if she starts or comes off the bench, Katie’s going to be huge. In every single one of our games, she’s going to be playing a lot of minutes,” Borton said.

Borton said Loberg had a great practice Tuesday and that it was a “nice feel for the whole team to have her back.”

Loberg has proven that she can, at times, be a scoring threat, and so her health is especially important for the team if they have a chance to make a run in the tournament.

Consistent scoring from players other than Banham or Buford has been hard to come by for Minnesota, especially in the post.

Spreading the scoring has been key to the Gophers in all of their big wins this season.

Borton said the team views the Big Ten tournament as a new season and that it hopes to make a statement in the tournament.

“I think the team that is most aggressive, attacks the most and shows the most competitiveness is going to win at this time of the year,” Borton said.