There’s nothing quite like the sandy beaches of Hawaii, especially when the temperature in Minnesota is below freezing.
But the Minnesota women’s basketball team is in for more than just a relaxing trip this weekend at the Hawaiian Regent Classic.
The Gophers play three games against three very good teams, giving second-year coach Cheryl Littlejohn an early chance to gauge the improvement of her team — one that seems to be taking on the gritty image she’s promised since day one.
Minnesota opens with Hawaii, which was 24-4 last season and ranked as high as 15th in the coaches’ poll. Saturday they’ll play Kansas, currently ranked No. 8 in the coaches’ poll. The weakest link is Massachusetts on Sunday; the Minutewomen were 19-11 last season and made the NCAA Tournament.
That’s some pretty stiff competition for a team with six newcomers, but Littlejohn claims this year’s team is different from every other Minnesota team in recent history.
“This team believes, and you can’t teach that, and you can’t sell it,” Littlejohn said.
In Wednesday’s 67-63 win over Illinois State, Minnesota senior Sonja Robinson outhustled, outworked and outplayed the Redbirds to lead the team in scoring with 10 points, picking up six rebounds along the way.
When Robinson was asked after the Illinois State game what the key was to her solid play inside, Littlejohn and junior Erin Olson started thumping their chests with their fists. Robinson answered, “I’m not going to let anyone outwork me.”
The Minnesota effort wasn’t a cakewalk. The first half was mired by early-season mistakes. Players forgot what play was called, easy layups were missed and Littlejohn was clearly frustrated.
“We were making a lot of careless mistakes,” Littlejohn said. “We were making a lot of telegraphed passes and bad plays.”
Chalk the sloppiness up to inexperience. Three of Wednesday’s starters were new to the Gophers, and all of the six newcomers saw significant action.
But while they were making mistakes, they were also leading the team. The newcomers had 37 points, and no one player can be singled out as a star. Freshman Jackie Tate grabbed nine rebounds and 10 points, and junior-college transfer Brandi Harris added nine points of her own.
“The first game I was nervous,” Tate said. “But tonight I was able to relax more.”
Freshman Kim Bell clearly hadn’t shaken those early season jitters. Bell — who stands a whopping 6 feet 7 inches tall — was a big target for the Minnesota guards in the first half. She missed four layups in the half, and was caught traveling on her way to another.
Bell needs to work on her footwork and positioning for rebounds if she’s going to compliment Robinson’s inside presence.
Sweeping Hawaii, Massachusetts and Kansas is probably a pipe dream for the Gophers, but at least it’s theoretically possible for this year’s Minnesota team to pick up a win. Those who stuck with the team from last year say they’re excited about the team — and the turnaround in progress.
“What we had to go through last year made (beating Illinois State) almost a revenge factor,” a smiling Littlejohn said.