No. 2 Purdue up next for U

by Jim Schortemeyer

It might not be a pretty sight tonight when the Purdue women’s basketball team takes on Minnesota.
The Boilermakers (14-0, 23-1) are what some might call a good basketball team. They’re ranked second in the nation, they’ve beaten top-ranked Tennessee and they haven’t lost since November.
The Gophers (7-17, 2-12) are on a seven-game losing streak and are struggling to find the game they had in early January.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s always frustrating,” freshman Cassie VanderHeyden said. “You just have to come to play.”
Purdue is driven by the best backcourt in the Big Ten. Senior Ukari Figgs and sophomore Katie Douglas combine to average 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
The scoring doesn’t end there: senior forward Stephanie White-McCarty is averaging 20.8 points and leads the team in rebounding. She ranks second on the school’s all-time scoring list.
Still, Cheryl Littlejohn found reason to hope in the weekend’s game.
“That’s the best thing (about the game),” Littlejohn said. “It’s the last time we see Figgs and White-McCarty.”
Going against Figgs is freshman Jackie Tate, whom Littlejohn considers the best — or certainly one of the best — defenders on her team.
“I’m not going to back down against Figgs,” Tate said. “I’m not scared. I consider myself one of the best defenders in the conference.”
If there is a bright side (and there probably isn’t) for Minnesota, it’s that Purdue has already wrapped up the Big Ten title, and it’s theoretically possible that they’ll be flat.
Fortunately, the Gophers will have one more chance for a regular season win on Sunday when Wisconsin (12-12, 7-7) comes to town. If Minnesota beats the Badgers, it could pull out of last place for the first season in four years.
The last time they met, the Badgers beat the Gophers 70-59, and VanderHeyden hit for 21 points. After cooling off for a while, VanderHeyden lit it up again last weekend with 24 and 17 points. But her effort wasn’t enough to overcome a weekend of poor rebounding.
“They mutilated us on the boards, and that’s the game,” Littlejohn said. “It’s effort, it’s passing and it’s working hard.”
Minnesota’s seven-game skid has been flat-out ugly. The Gophers haven’t been within 12 points of an opponent during that time.
While the streak hasn’t been pretty, at least this year’s team has enough talent that it might be able to snap the streak. Littlejohn calls the difference “night and day.
“We see ourselves as improving. You don’t see it a lot on the scoreboard, but we know it,” Littlejohn said.
Littlejohn tried to break the Gophers out of their funk last weekend by starting four relative rookies to the starting ranks. Despite a 32-point loss to Penn State, VanderHeyden says there’s been a drastic change in the team.
“The way we played last summer versus the way we play now is totally different,” VanderHeyden said. “We were playing street ball.”
VanderHeyden is the Gophers leading scorer in the conference season, averaging 10.9 points per game.
The only action left for Minnesota after this weekend will be the Big Ten Tournament next weekend. Odds are that the Gophers will face Michigan State in the first round, assuming Minnesota finishes as the 11th seed.