Gophers win second straight, top Illinois

Amanda Zahui B. broke the school record for blocks in a single season.

Gophers senior guard Sari Noga dives for a loose ball during the first half of Sunday's game.

Gophers senior guard Sari Noga dives for a loose ball during the first half of Sunday's game.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota’s start to the conference schedule was brutal, and its 2-6 Big Ten record to start conference play reflected it.

Now the Gophers are taking advantage of a stretch against some teams in the bottom half of the conference.

Minnesota (15-9, 4-6 Big Ten) was aggressive from the get-go against Illinois (9-15, 2-9 Big Ten) en route to a 66-61 win.

“We got off to a great start,” head coach Pam Borton said. “I’m very proud of our team for being resilient.”

The Gophers opened up the game riding standout freshman center Amanda Zahui B. She dominated the paint early on, scoring the Gophers’ first six points and finishing the first half with 13 points.

While her offensive output was needed, arguably Zahui B.’s biggest contribution for Minnesota this year has been her defense. And Sunday, she set the program’s single-season blocks record, breaking Janel McCarville’s previous mark of 65.

“It’s really cool, but I just have to keep working and try to get more blocks and not fouls,” Zahui B. said.

Illinois went on a run to close the half and took a 28-27 lead into the break. But the Gophers regained the momentum to begin the second period.

It started with Rachel Banham, who took over the second half to live up to her nickname: the Maroon Mamba. She caught fire in the second half to keep the Gophers in the game. Banham finished with 24 points and made five threes.

“In the second half, I just let it fly,” Banham said. “That’s when I’m at my best. … I’m just going to keep shooting regardless of if it goes in or not, because I know it’s going to help our team.”

Banham kept the Gophers alive, but Minnesota ended the game the same way it began, as Zahui B. took control.

The teams were tied 58-58 with less than three minutes to play when Zahui B. rattled off six straight points to secure the win.

Borton said Zahui B. has a unique ability to improve as games progress.

“She’s not letting what is affecting her throughout the first part of the game affect her at the end of the game,” Borton said. “It’s her figuring it out throughout the course of the game, and she finished really, really strong today.”

Jackie Johnson came off the bench to score eight points for the Gophers.

Shayne Mullaney didn’t play for the second straight game due to concussion-like symptoms. Stabresa McDaniel started in her place and chipped in with four points, four assists and five rebounds.

Zahui B. had a game-high 12 rebounds, while Banham played all 40 minutes.

Together, they controlled the game from start to finish.

“We’ve been working on me and Amanda playing together more,” Banham said. “I can usually read the floor pretty well, and I think we played well together.”