Gophers open season with Best Buy Classic

Katie Loberg’s injury has forced the Gophers to adjust their lineup.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham plays against Wisconsin on Jan. 26 at Williams Arena.

Image by Erin Westover, Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham plays against Wisconsin on Jan. 26 at Williams Arena.

by Samuel Gordon

The Gophers women’s basketball team had more than a month of practice and two exhibition games to prepare for the regular season.

Now it’s finally here.

Minnesota will open its season this weekend at Williams Arena with the Best Buy Classic, a four-team tournament featuring Washington State, Villanova and South Dakota State.

The Gophers will play Washington State on Saturday and would advance to Sunday’s championship game with a win.

If Minnesota plans to claim the tournament title, it will have to play much better than it did in its preseason finale.

Division II opponent Minnesota State outhustled the Gophers but lost 66-56 last Sunday. Gophers head coach Pam Borton said the Mavericks pushed her squad and exposed some of its weaknesses.

Borton has said depth will be one of the Gophers’ strengths this season, but it could be a weakness early on. Senior post player Katie Loberg had her knee scoped and has missed a couple of weeks of action.

Borton said Loberg will probably start practicing by the end of the week, but she won’t play this weekend.

Loberg missed both exhibition games, which forced Borton to alter her lineup and use players at multiple positions.

“Kids were playing tired, kids were playing with a lack of experience at positions, but I think we’ll be better because of it,” she said. “That’s what exhibition games are for — putting people in situations they may see down the road.”

Freshman forward Kayla Hirt, who made her return after missing the last two years with torn anterior cruciate ligaments, said the team is versatile despite Loberg’s injury.

“All of us can play different positions,” she said, “which makes it a lot easier when you’re running up and down the floor.”

Minnesota’s floor general, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Rachel Banham, is still working her way back in to game shape.

Banham had a blood clot in her lung this summer and missed the first few weeks of practice, which started at the beginning of October.

Despite not being up to speed, she led the Gophers in scoring with 20 or more points in both exhibition games.

“I don’t think it’ll take much longer,” Banham said. “Once we get to this next game, I’ll feel more in game-shape.”

Banham and the Gophers will be challenged early by Washington State, a Pac-12 opponent. The Cougars were 13-20 a year ago, but Borton said she isn’t taking them lightly.

The Cougars returned three of their top four scorers from a year ago and have some size up front with 6-foot-4-inch forward Shalie Dheensaw and 6-foot-5-inch center Carly Noyes.

Hirt says playing a team from another power conference early in the season will help prepare the Gophers for a rigorous Big Ten schedule.

“We want to play the best before we get in to the Big Ten [schedule],” she said. “It puts us in a good position to play teams like [WSU].”