Minnesota headed to Big Ten tournament

The Gophers will play Northwestern, the No. 12 seed, in their first matchup.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham looks up the court while shielding the ball from Northwestern guard Ashley Deary at Williams Arena on Jan. 20.

Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham looks up the court while shielding the ball from Northwestern guard Ashley Deary at Williams Arena on Jan. 20.

Kaitlin Merkel

The Gophers are heading to the Big Ten tournament with the team’s NCAA tournament hopes on the line.
Fifth-seeded Minnesota (19-10, 11-7 Big Ten) is ranked 75th in the ratings percentage index heading into the Big Ten tournament and will likely need to win a few games to make it into the NCAA field.
“There’s a buzz about it for sure. There has been for about three weeks in our locker room. It’s definitely something that their hearts and minds are set on wanting to do,” head coach Marlene Stollings said. “[We want] as many [victories] as we can get. We’re just going to leave it at that. We’re going to be greedy.”
The Gophers’ record gave them a first-round bye in the tournament, which began Wednesday. Minnesota will play 12th-seeded Northwesternon Thursday in its first game.
The team defeated the Wildcats twice earlier this year, including a double-overtime game on Feb. 7, when redshirt senior guard Rachel Banham tied an NCAA record with 60 points.
With the extra day to prepare, the Gophers focused on defense and rebounding, after struggling in both areas in a 110-77 loss to then-No. 6 Maryland in their last game. 
“Our defensive focus is going to be huge [along with] rebounding. Those are going to be the things that are going to separate us,” Stollings said. “We know we’re capable of it. We just have to exert the energy and the effort that it takes individually and be accountable for it.”
Stollings said the tournament will come down to effort and execution because the teams know each other so well and have little time to prepare between games.
She said that after the first game, teams mostly just prepare for opponents with walkthroughs in hotel ballrooms.
Banham, who was named the Big Ten player of the year on Monday, said she’s entering the tournament with plenty of motivation.
Despite setting school and conference records in her career, Banham has never played in an NCAA tournament game.
“We need to win. I don’t really know the whole logistics of it all, but I want to win the whole thing,” Banham said. “I’m kind of anxious. I just really, really want to get [to the NCAA tournament], so I’m going to do everything I can.”
Teammate Carlie Wagner said the Gophers are driven to end Banham’s last season in the NCAA tournament to complete her comeback from a torn ACL last season.
“We really want to get Rachel there,” Wagner said. She’s worked so hard and done so much for the program. It’d be great to have her go out dancing.”
Ben Gotz contributed to this report.