Littlejohn preaches confidence, aggression against Michigan State

by Murali Balaji

Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn wrapped up practice with short run drills designed to keep her players on their toes and on task. When the tempo of the drills wasn’t to Littlejohn’s liking, she made her players repeat the drills.
Littlejohn has cracked the whip on her team this week, determined to keep the players aggressive and confident after an 80-66 letdown last Sunday against Indiana. With road games against Michigan State and 22nd-ranked Ohio State tonight and Sunday, respectively, the Gophers (7-10, 2-5 in the Big Ten) have little time to be complacent.
“(The loss against Indiana) is a setback in wins, but certainly not in confidence,” Littlejohn said. “More than anything, we have to be the same team we were a week ago — hungry and aggressive.”
Last year, the Gophers collected their lone conference win against Michigan State. However, Minnesota will be facing a Spartan team that is looking to build on a 70-64 victory against Iowa.
Michigan State (9-7, 3-3) has an imposing frontcourt led by 6-foot-4 forward Kristen Rasmussen, who averages 15.1 points and a team-high 8.4 rebounds per game. Six-foot, three-inch sophomore Becky Cummings has also emerged with 11.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
“Michigan State has a lot more depth than they had last year,” Littlejohn said. “They did a great job of recruiting, and they’re at the same point as us in their confidence.”
One weapon the Gophers will try to utilize more is junior guard Brandi Harris, who scored 20 second-half points and grabbed nine rebounds against Indiana. Harris, whose play had been somewhat erratic throughout the season, is hoping to establish herself as a reliable presence in the team’s offensive rotation.
“I’ve just got to go out and be more consistent,” she said. “The coaches have confidence in me, and I’ve got confidence in myself that I can help this team win.”
First-year guard Cassie VanderHeyden, who has developed a specialty in launching three-pointers, could be the key to counter the potential onslaught by both the Spartans and the Buckeyes.
“I don’t think (Michigan State) will try to do anything special to guard me,” VanderHeyden said. “All the teams have different ways of trying to defend against us, so I don’t know if they’ll focus on me.”
Ohio State (12-4, 5-1) may be more of a daunting task for the Gophers. The Buckeyes were ambushed at Northwestern on Sunday, thus losing possession of first place in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes also bring a powerful frontcourt to the mix, with forwards Larecha Jones and Marrita Porter tied for the team lead in scoring (13.6 ppg). The 5-foot-11 Porter, whose size and style of play are similar to Gophers forward Sonja Robinson, is averaging a team-high five rebounds and shooting 61 percent from the field.
Littlejohn, however, isn’t daunted by the formidable post challenges brought by both the Spartans and Buckeyes. Littlejohn believes that Robinson, who has been consistently isolated down low against players much bigger than her, won’t be overmatched.
“I see Sonja having the same success she’s had all season,” Littlejohn said. “Size has never been a problem for her, because she goes all out.”