Minnesota and Wisconsin open Big Ten tournament

As if Wisconsin needs any more size to match up with the Gophers, Badger coach Jane Albright announced Monday that doctors have cleared 6-foot-4 center Nina Smith to play in tonight’s Big Ten tournament game against 11th-seeded Minnesota in Indianapolis.
Smith ranked as high as first in the Big Ten and 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage (59.7) before fracturing her right foot. The freshman has been out of action since Jan. 1, but played too many games to apply for a medical redshirt.
Albright herself has just recovered from an injury. Her pet lion-fish, Mufasa, bit her hand last week, causing it to become swollen three to four times its normal size. Albright missed two days of practice while doctors worked on her hand but will be on the sidelines coaching the sixth-seeded Badgers tonight.
Albright said Smith could play up to 20 minutes Thursday, depending on how she feels during the game. Smith averaged 11 points and 5.8 rebounds per game for Wisconsin before her foot injury.
Minnesota has already lost twice to Wisconsin without Smith. Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said the team is prepared for Smith’s return but added that the loss of impact players can make a huge difference.
“Kim Bell (a 6-7 sophomore) can neutralize her impact; she’s going to have to play 15-18 minutes for us,” she said. “(Smith’s) been out 17 games. Is she going to be fresh? Who knows?”
The Gophers will also use freshman Kim Prince off the bench to counter the size of Smith and Badgers forwards LaTonya Sims and Jessie Stomski, each 6-3. Prince has come off the bench to score in double figures in each of the last five games for Minnesota.
Sims, Stomski, and sophomore guard Tamara Moore had huge games against the Gophers during the regular season. Moore scored 22 points in both contests, while Stomski scored 18 points and added 12 rebounds in Wisconsin’s 66-55 win at the Sports Pavilion on Feb. 10. Sims may have single-handedly won the teams’ first meeting in Madison at the foul line, where she sank 11-of-12 free throws in the second half. She finished with 15 points.
Minnesota’s best chance to beat Wisconsin might be to get hot from behind the arc. Freshman Lindsay Lieser and sophomore Cassie VanderHeyden have been three-point machines this year for the Gophers. The duo is 1-2 in the Big Ten, respectively, in that category. Minnesota scored five three-point baskets in the first half alone in its win over Michigan State last Sunday — four of those came from VanderHeyden.
“Everyone knows we’re shooters,” VanderHeyden said.
Senior Erin Olson, the only Gopher with more than one game of Big Ten tournament experience, said the team does have other options.
“We aren’t incapable of playing without the three-pointer,” she said. “If they take that away, we can dish it inside.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin will meet tonight for the third time in four years in round one of the conference tournament. The Gophers’ lone win in the tourney came in a surprise 80-75 upset of the Badgers on Feb. 28, 1997. It was only the second conference win of the season for Minnesota.
But the Badgers’ luck in Indianapolis hasn’t been much better. Wisconsin has dropped four of the last five first round games in the tournament.
Albright said the team is happy about playing in the new Conseco Fieldhouse versus the RCA Dome, the tournament’s old venue.
“Wins down there have been hard to come by. We’re excited about playing in the new arena — we didn’t fare very well in the old one,” she said.