Favorable draw awaits Gophers in Big Ten tournament

Minnesota beat Ohio State, its first-round opponent, twice in the regular season.

by Samuel Gordon

Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx know a thing or two about postseason success.

The duo, both members of the Gophers’ 2004 Final Four team, practiced with the Gophers women’s basketball team Tuesday in advance of its first-round Big Ten tournament game.

The Gophers, the No. 8 seed in the 12-team conference tournament, will face No. 9 seed Ohio State on Thursday. They’re 2-0 against the Buckeyes this season.

Minnesota finished the regular season with wins in three of its last four games, including a road victory against the Buckeyes and an upset win over then-No. 7 Penn State.

“We’re playing a little bit better defense. We’re finding a way to win and finishing games,” Gophers head coach Pam Borton said. “There’s nothing better than playing basketball at this time of year.”

Borton said her team is playing some of its best defensive basketball, and the numbers back that up.

The Gophers allowed a Big Ten season-low 53 points in their season finale against Indiana, and they gave up 56 points, their third-lowest in conference play, against the Buckeyes on Feb. 21.

Minnesota has also found balance on the offensive end of the floor.

Forward-center Micaëlla Riché has kicked her game into another gear, averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in the past two games.

Her dominance inside has helped alleviate Big Ten scoring champion Rachel Banham of some scoring responsibility, and it’s opened up opportunities for role players, especially in the half-court offense.

Much of the scoring in Minnesota’s last meeting with first-round foe Ohio State came in the half court.

The teams’ first meeting, which the Gophers won 83-74, was played at a quicker pace.

Banham said she expects Thursday’s game to be a mixture of the two regular season meetings.

“We want to run, but we can’t go too fast,” she said. “We have to take care of the ball.”

Penn State, the tournament’s top seed and the No. 8 team in the nation, will play the winner of the Minnesota-Ohio State matchup.

The Gophers beat the Nittany Lions last week, and Riché said she thinks the Gophers have a favorable tournament draw.

“We’ve been set up for two really good games,” she said. “We’ve got to get there first.”

Minnesota will likely need to make a run in the conference tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Banham said the Gophers “definitely” need to win the Big Ten tournament to make the Big Dance.

“We want to win it anyways — that’s our goal,” she said.

Banham, a sophomore who was named to the All-Big Ten First Team on Monday, said there’s a sense of urgency entering this weekend.

“I’m halfway done already. I don’t want to be sitting here my senior year saying the same stuff,” she said. “Like, ‘Wow it went fast, I did nothing.’

 “I want to do it now.”