Women’s basketball opens regular season with home tourney

Mark Heller

Cheryl Littlejohn knows what’s at stake this season.
Beginning the fourth year of a five-year contract as the Minnesota women’s basketball coach, she doesn’t need anyone telling her this season could be the difference between a pink slip and a contract extension.
“This is a critical year,” she said three weeks ago in Chicago. “I look at this from where I am in my contract and I’m a realistic person.”
Littlejohn’s fourth year officially begins this weekend in their home invitational tournament at the Sports Pavilion, the new home to 11 players on her roster — including three from overseas.
Such a large roster turnaround in one season is always cause for concern, especially in adjusting to the collegiate game. Littlejohn, however, is unfazed. She plans to start four freshmen and junior center Kim Bell on Saturday.
Bell has had various knee problems in her two years at Minnesota. But a strong off-season regiment has her in better shape.
“I’m coming along really well,” she said. “Last year I couldn’t go half a practice without pain. Now I can get through full practices and games even without ice.”
Bell is not a big scoring threat — her eight points against Wisconsin last season are a career high. But her health, rebounding and shot-blocking could be key with an awfully young and rather small lineup around her.
Speaking of youth, Lindsay Whalen, Tanisha Gilbert, Megan Kane and Kadidja Andersson are those four freshmen joining Bell this weekend.
“It’s definitely a small lineup,” Littlejohn said. “Kim Bell is at 6-foot-7, but when you look at Tanisha at (shooting guard), Megan Kane at (small forward), Kadidja at (power forward) and Lindsay at the point, it’s a scoring lineup and defensive lineup and I think it’s a lineup that will get us off to the best start.”
The Gophers have two seniors, Brandy Pickens — out a couple more weeks with a stress fracture on her left leg — and Alana Glass. Sophomores Lindsay Lieser — who set a school record for three-pointers last season — and point guard Trish McGhee will come off the bench.
As young as this team is, Littlejohn likes the versatility of Kane, Gilbert and Andersson. But even more appealing to the Gophers is that they resemble little from last season.
A wave of crippling injuries and the defection of highly-sought recruit Natea Motley left Littlejohn’s team in disarray. They were almost fortunate to finish 10-18. Bell called the comparison of seasons, “like night and day. We can have fun and laugh on and off the court.”
11 new youngsters give this team an injection of youth, athleticism and versatility. Three weeks ago in Chicago, Littlejohn called .500 a realistic goal.
Bell, however, took Littlejohn’s ante and raised her.
“This team has the talent and potential to go pretty far. (.500) is a realistic goal, but I think we could finish in the top four (in the Big Ten).”
A lofty expectation indeed. But this year’s talent infusion is probably the best in Littlejohn’s tenure.
“More than anything you have to trust the coaches. I don’t care what the name is. It’s what people are going to get us off to the best start. It’s all about production and performance. Those four freshmen are getting it done, and the only concern I have right now is about winning.”

Mark Heller is the associate sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]