U rebuilding effort underway

by Jim Schortemeyer

The Gophers women’s basketball team’s reputation as the Big Ten’s perennial cellar-dweller might be under fire, judging by the team’s early success.
Minnesota (3-3) is at .500 through six games for the first time since 1993-94, evidence that second-year coach Cheryl Littlejohn’s rebuilding effort might be coming around.
The Gophers are a young team — of the 14 players on the roster, eight are new to the program — with just one returning starter from a season ago. But Littlejohn has imparted her fiery attitude on the team, which is again showing flashes of competence, if not excellence, on the court.
Here’s a look at who’s back, who’s new and why Minnesota is doing better:

Senior Sonja Robinson is far from a prototypical center, standing 5 feet 11 inches tall. Still, she leads the team in rebounds with 7.83 a game.
“She is all heart,” coach Cheryl Littlejohn said.
Robinson is backed up by her exact opposite in freshman Kim Bell. Bell is 6-7 and an unrefined ball player. She’s a big target for the Minnesota offense, but hasn’t been able to convert opportunities. She’s 0-for-7 from the field this season.
Heads up: Size has been a factor on defense, where the Gophers have had to scramble inside. Minnesota essentially plays three forwards with Robinson in the game, which will likely lead to problems in the burly Big Ten.
“That’s what we’re going to see,” Robinson said. “We saw it against Kansas. They were a lot bigger than us. But you can beat size with quickness.”

A mix of the old and the new has given Minnesota a measure of stability at the forwards. Sophomore Theresa LeCuyer is usually the bedrock on which Minnesota’s offense is built. LeCuyer has scored in double figures four times this season.
She is complemented nicely by freshman Jackie Tate — a defensive specialist whom Littlejohn likes — and junior college transfer Moneeke Bowden, who is averaging seven points a game. Freshman Erin Schaffer is the fourth forward and has seen limited action.
All relative: Like most of the team, it’s an issue of experience. Referring to a sophomore like LeCuyer as a veteran is almost misleading.
This is by far the most competitive position in the Minnesota lineup. The Gophers have six guards who have played in every game.
Junior Erin Olson has emerged as the starter at the point, thanks to her solid play over the weekend.
“Erin played smart and did what she had to do,” Littlejohn said. “That desire needs to carry over to her teammates.”
Junior Swantreca Taylor seems to have nailed down the starting off-guard position, primarily because of her defensive skills. Taylor held Bradley star Stephanie White to just two points Saturday.
The second-wave of guards are a talented pair of freshmen. Antoinetta Blevins has shown flashes of brilliance (i.e. her 15-point performance against Bradley), and Cassie VanderHeyden is always looking for a good three-point shot.
As Littlejohn has pointed out, beware of early improvement. Last year Minnesota won three of its first nine games before taking a nosedive in the Big Ten season.
“I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate, being 3-3,” Littlejohn said.