Gophers in search of signature win at MSU

Minnesota needs to win two of its last three games to bolster its resume.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham sets up a play against Loyola at Williams Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Daily File Photo, Holly Peterson

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham sets up a play against Loyola at Williams Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Jack Satzinger

The Gophers opened the 2013-14 season with their first NCAA tournament appearance in five years on their minds.

Since then, they’ve seen Rachel Banham do Rachel Banham things and Amanda Zahui B. emerge as arguably the top freshman in the Big Ten.

Still, those performances yielded only a 2-6 start to the conference season, which put Pam Borton in the hot seat. A couple of weeks later, the Gophers’ head coach was praised for leading the team to a four-game winning streak with a lineup change.

Then last Thursday, looking for a signature win to cement their postseason aspirations, the Gophers laid an egg at home against Purdue in a 21-point loss.

Now, it all comes down to this — sort of.

Minnesota’s matchup with Michigan State on Monday is its last regular-season game against a projected tournament team.

It could be the signature win the Gophers desperately need.

“That’s obviously what they need, and that’s one of the big things that the committee is looking at,” ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist Charlie Creme said. “Can you prove yourself to be able to beat good teams? So far, Minnesota has done a nice job of beating the teams they’re supposed to beat but haven’t really upped it a level.”

If anything, the Gophers’ team play plummets when matched against top teams.

Creme projects five Big Ten squads as near locks for the tournament — Minnesota hasn’t beaten any of those teams. In fact, the Gophers have lost to those teams by a combined 86 points.

“The committee sorts through some of this stuff and will say, ‘Boy, they really weren’t competitive against Michigan State. In Penn State, they weren’t competitive. Those are the two best teams in the league, and they weren’t even on the same floor.’”

Minnesota played Michigan State earlier this season and lost by 25 points at home, but since then, the Gophers have shown improvement. Still, the question remains whether it will be enough.

“We’ll see,” Borton said. “Michigan State is very, very good. … They came in, and it was a rude awakening for us.”

If Minnesota loses to Michigan State on Monday night, its last chance to beat a high-level opponent will be in the Big Ten tournament.

Monday night’s game isn’t necessarily a make-or-break game, but the Gophers are running out of chances to make an impression on the selection committee. That’s put a lot of pressure on the team, but the Gophers are trying not to focus on it.

“That’s obviously in the back of your mind,” Banham said, “but for us, we’ve just kind of put that in our back pocket.”

Creme said Minnesota essentially has to go 2-1 in its final three regular-season games against Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State to have a shot at the tournament.

“They would stay in the conversation with a Michigan State loss as long as they win the other two,” he said.

That’s Borton’s thinking, too. If the Gophers snag two of the next three, they’ll finish with a .500 record in the Big Ten.

“If we can get to .500 in the league, I think that we’re going to be pretty solid,” Borton said.

But nothing is for certain when a team is on the bubble.

There are multiple teams from non-power conferences that Creme projects will make the tournament — Gonzaga, James Madison and Dayton, to name a few. If one of those programs loses its conference tournament, another team will also get a tournament berth.

That’s one less spot for a bubble team like the Gophers.

“They probably do need to do something else to be in the field,” Creme said. “You don’t want to leave yourself with no room. And right now, Minnesota doesn’t have any room.”

Creme said he thinks Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue and Iowa will all represent the Big Ten in the tournament — Minnesota is the only question mark the conference has left. 

“It’s going to be five or six at this point,” Creme said. “A win Monday at Michigan State would be big.”