INDIANAPOLIS — There must be something funny about the air in Conseco Fieldhouse, or maybe it was the arena staff mysteriously switching to smaller rims as they adjusted the three-point line for the women’s Big Ten basketball tournament.
In either case, for much of Thursday’s first round game between the 11th-seeded Gophers and sixth-seeded Wisconsin, a shot by either team from beyond 10 feet didn’t have a prayer.
Luckily for the Badgers, they have two key weapons that Minnesota lacked — depth and size.
It didn’t matter for Wisconsin that they had no outside shooting, they still outlasted Minnesota 56-49 in a true Big Ten-style game. It was physical and it was ugly.
Matters were close at half — Minnesota was only down 26-24. But the difference-maker for Wisconsin had already entered the game.
The Badgers deployed a weapon Minnesota didn’t see in its previous two border battle losses: 6-foot-4 freshman Nina Smith, who put the Gophers in foul trouble early and scored nine points inside.
Minnesota native Jessie Stomski and LaTonya Sims added 10 points for Wisconsin.
Minnesota had its worst three-point output of the season. When Cassie VanderHeyden knocked down a trey in the second half, it cut the Badgers lead to 12 points with 7:33 remaining. It was also Minnesota’s first and only three of the ball game.
The leading three-point shooting team in the conference finished 1-for-15 from behind the arc.
The Badgers finished 3-21 from downtown, but the one that counted was Tamara Moore’s trey with 5:04 left in the game, putting Wisconsin up 46-36, ending a five-point Minnesota run.
Moore, who scored 22 points in both previous contests against the Gophers, was held in check for most of the night, using some mop-up buckets late in the game to muster ten points.
It was the arrival of Smith that had the Gophers overpowered early.
“The big difference was (Smith),” Minnesota coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “She did a great job and Lindsay (Lieser) and Cassie (VanderHeyden) didn’t hit shots like they usually do.”
Brandy Pickens, one of three post players who picked up four fouls before the nine minute mark of the second half, said battling with Smith was tough.
“It takes a lot of energy and strength going up against her,” she said.
“(Smith) added a new element we didn’t have.”
Though trailing by double-digits in the last four minutes, senior Erin Olson didn’t quit for Minnesota. She scored 12 of Minnesota’s last 14 points, including a 4-foot hook shot with 49.7 seconds to go, finally cutting Wisconsin’s lead to nine.
Olson finished with a game-leading 18 points for the Gophers. The effort was too late and afterwards the senior got emotional.
“It’s a tough game; I’m proud of our team,” she said in tears. “There was no quit in us. It was a fun game, it was an ugly game. I’m proud to be a Gopher.”
Wisconsin will face third-seeded Michigan in the last game of the night Friday.
Jason Iacovino covers women’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]