Banham ready for comeback season

The redshirt senior guard missed most of last season with a knee injury in Dec.

Gophers women's basketball player Rachel Banham poses in the Bierman Field Athletic Building on Thursday afternoon. Banham has returned to play for the Gophers after recovering from an injury that forced her to sit out her senior season.

Joe Sulik

Gophers women's basketball player Rachel Banham poses in the Bierman Field Athletic Building on Thursday afternoon. Banham has returned to play for the Gophers after recovering from an injury that forced her to sit out her senior season.

Kaitlin Merkel

Rachel Banham said she can’t wait to hear her name echoing through Williams Arena again when the Gophers open their season on Friday against Wofford.
 
The redshirt senior guard has good reason to be excited. She’s waited 11 months to get back on the court after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament on Dec. 10, 2014.
 
“I never thought I’d be this excited because I’ve never been out for this long, so I’ve just been so anxious, and I’m also so nervous just to get back out there, in a good way,” Banham said. “I’m going to be probably near tears on the first game day because I’m going to be so excited.”
 
Gophers head coach Marlene Stollings said she is excited to watch Banham back on the court, as the guard has averaged 19.5 points per game throughout her career and is the program’s second leading all-time scorer.
 
“I think that you talk about unfinished business, you think of [Banham],” Stollings said.
 
The Gophers rallied around Banham even after her injury, sporting new shirts with the phrase “Buckets for Banham” last year. 
 
“Our team just embracing her really just shows how much our team respects her and believes in her and how much they follow her,” Stollings said.
 
Down but not out
 
Banham said the timing of her injury last year was disappointing, especially when she watched from the bench as the Gophers made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
 
“I think that deep down there, I was a little bit sad, but I was so proud to see how my team was playing,” Banham said. “I didn’t get to play [in the NCAA tournament], but I was technically coaching in it, so I felt like I was still a part of it a little bit, but I’m just excited to be back this year and hopefully do the same thing.”
 
Banham announced her decision to come back for a redshirt senior year on Jan. 23 and received a medical hardship waiver from the Big Ten conference to get an extra year of eligibility.
 
Banham said she initially didn’t even want to think about applying for a waiver, but about a month later at the urging of her coaches, she decided to try and make a comeback at Minnesota.
 
She had surgery on her knee on Jan. 5, and once she began the rehab process, she said the most challenging part was restricting herself in workouts.
 
“The hardest part was when I was starting to be able to do more, but not enough,” Banham said. “It was when they said I could start jogging, but you can’t cut. And then you start cutting, but you can’t play full on, so it was just those little steps to not being able to play full basketball.”
 
Stollings said Banham will have no playing restrictions to start the year, though she doesn’t want to use the guard too much right away.
 
“She’s in great shape,” Stollings said. “You’re looking at someone who’s just rearing to get back out there. We’ll probably have to pull the reigns back a little bit, but she would 
probably play every minute if we would let her.”
 
Banham said now that she feels 100 percent healthy and is playing full contact, she doesn’t think about getting injured again.
 
“I haven’t really hesitated at all. I think that sometimes in the back of my mind, I do think about it, but I’m just so competitive that I just go for it,” Banham said. “I try not to think about anything when I’m playing.”
 
Back as the focal point
 
Banham is expected to be a leader on and off the court in her final season, as the focal point of the Gophers’ offense and as the team’s most experienced player.
 
“Everyone on our team knows that she’s our leader; we’ll go as she goes,” Stollings said. “She brings all those intangibles that you can’t teach.”
 
Senior guard Mikayla Bailey said Banham’s presence is especially important this season because she is the centerpiece of the guard-heavy team.
 
“Even though she did go down, she was a great leader off the court and really helped us [last year],” Bailey said. “But for her to be back this year … I’m just really excited for her to show her leadership on the court, and we’re all the little pieces that help her do well.”
 
The team will rely more on Banham and her fellow guards this season after losing two members of its frontcourt, Shae Kelley and Amanda Zahui B., to the WNBA. 
 
The Gophers may play a four-guard lineup at times this season due to the losses.
 
“I think we’re just going to be playing a lot faster, and there will be a lot more threes going up because all four of us guards shoot a lot of threes,” Banham said. “It’s just going to be a fun game. I think that we’re going to be running a lot up and down and … [there will be] a lot of driving, a lot of shooting.”
 
There will be extra attention placed on Banham early in the season, as she is on pace to break the all-time Minnesota scoring record of 2,285 career points. 
 
Banham needs 107 points to surpass the current record holder, Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen.
 
Banham already holds the record for career three-pointers and free throw percentage at Minnesota and is also 16 starts away from having the 
most in a Minnesota uniform.
 
“I don’t even think about [the scoring record], it’s going to come when it comes,” Banham said. “If I play the way I’m supposed to and help out my team, it’ll come, so I’m not even worried about thinking about it.”
 
Banham was also selected to the preseason All-Big Ten team and was ranked No. 14 on ESPN’s Top 25 women’s college basketball players for this season.
 
After waiting 11 months to get back on the court, Banham set even higher expectations for herself.
 
“I want to be the Big Ten player of the year. I want to be an All-American. [And] I want to obviously break the record that’s coming up pretty soon,” Banham said. “The sky’s the limit for me.”