Precocious freshman Banham revives expectations

Minnesota’s Ms. Basketball will fill the true point guard void for the Gophers.

Derek Wetmore

CHICAGO âÄì The Gophers womenâÄôs basketball team is returning 11 players from last yearâÄôs roster, including four starters.

But whatâÄôs really created a buzz around the team is a newcomer: freshman point guard Rachel Banham.

The Lakeville North graduate and last yearâÄôs Ms. Basketball will step in and start right away, and according to head coach Pam Borton, make a significant impact.

âÄúI think weâÄôre just excited to have a great point guard back in the program. SheâÄôs just going to make everything a little bit easier for everybody else,âÄù Borton said.

One of the players who stands to benefit most from adding a precocious talent like Banham is her starting backcourt mate, Kiara Buford.

âÄúA true point guard is something we havenâÄôt had in a while,âÄù Buford said. âÄúSheâÄôs a great scoring threat from the point and I think everybodyâÄôs just really excited about that.âÄù

Buford wasnâÄôt intending to slam former teammates, because she herself is included in that mix.

More of a shooting guard by trade, Buford was forced into a lot of ball handling action and point guard duties a season ago. As a result, Borton said, her overall performance suffered.

Buford has 1,043 career points, but said her game will be helped out by a player with exactly zero.

âÄúSheâÄôs a playmaker, I think sheâÄôs confident in that strength in her game,âÄù Buford said of Banham.

âÄúEverybody feels like she might be that piece to the puzzle that we needed,âÄù she added.

The only member missing from last yearâÄôs team is guard China Antoine, who graduated.

Minnesota was 4-12 last season, but was never blown out of games. The team made a habit of coughing up second-half leads and losing close games.

Borton said both of those trends figure to change this year.

In late-game situations, skill is important but experience generally reigns supreme.

As Buford says, âÄúyou learn how to finish games by finishing games.âÄù

Senior Jackie Voigt said too many people are overlooking how many players are returning from last yearâÄôs squad.

âÄúExperience almost means everything at the end of games,âÄù Buford said.

How, then, does a freshman running the show make the team more competitive in crunch time?

âÄúInstead of looking around for someone to make that last play, weâÄôre going to have a point guard driving us,âÄù Buford said.

Borton added: âÄúSheâÄôs great in the open floor, I think she sees everything thatâÄôs going on. SheâÄôs an attacking point guard that can pull up for a jump shot at the free throw line or take it to the rim. ItâÄôs going to be her responsibility to keep our team up-tempo.âÄù

With the addition of Banham, who creates offensive opportunities for teammates, and a yearâÄôs worth of maturity and growth from the rest of the team, the Gophers should be more competitive this year.

With as much presumed responsibility sheâÄôll have on offense, though, Borton said sheâÄôll attempt to alleviate the defensive onus on Banham.

âÄúRachelâÄôs running our team so we try to take a little pressure off of her in the defensive end and slide her to the wing a little bit and not necessarily guard the point guard.

âÄúIf we want to pick up full-court [press], weâÄôll probably ask somebody else to do that, not her.âÄù

The rationale behind the move is to keep her legs fresh so the motor that the team hopes will churn its offensive engine doesnâÄôt stall.

âÄúYou canâÄôt ask a kid âÄì whether sheâÄôs a freshman or a senior âÄì to do everything. SheâÄôs running 94 feet, the length of the floor,âÄù Borton said.

âÄúWeâÄôre looking to take her off the point and move her to the wing a few possessions [on offense] and let Kiara [Buford] handle the ball.

âÄúI think Rachel enjoys being on the wing and scoring a little bit more, and itâÄôll give her a little break from ball handling responsibilities as well.âÄù