New millenium, same old story for women’s basketball

by Mark Heller

Perhaps no team was more anxious to rid itself of the previous millennium than the Minnesota women’s basketball squad.
But so far, no team might be more willing to burn the new millennium.
The Gophers (7-8, 1-5 Big Ten) won five in a row to close the curtain on the ’90s, including their Big Ten opener at Indiana. Since New Year’s they have lost all five games on the schedule.
Even coach Cheryl Littlejohn wasn’t totally enthralled by her club’s 6-3 nonconference record — including wins in the final four games by an average of 13 points.
A 9-0 run in the last two-and-a-half minutes in Bloomington gave Minnesota an eight-point win over the Hoosiers. The Gophers not only matched last year’s win total of seven, but hadn’t won their opening conference game since ’94-95.
Since then the tires have gone flat and the wheels have been coming off.
“We need to be stronger minded and prepared as a team as far as coming together before the game starts and not just thinking we can do it when the game starts,” senior forward Moneeke Bowden said.
In five conference games, Bowden averaged 10 points per game on just 30 percent shooting but led the team with just over seven rebounds per game.
“It’s not a lack of preparation, it’s a lack of focus,” Bowden said.
Michigan slammed the brakes on Minnesota’s winning streak in the first game of 2000, crushing the Gophers by 25 at the Sports Pavilion.
At the time, the Gophers led the conference in three-point shooting.
The Wolverines noticed. Shooting guard-turned point guard Cassie VanderHeyden, freshman Lindsay Lieser and junior Erin Olson shot a combined 5-for-32, 3-for-20 from behind the arc. Bowden led the team with 23 points and 13 rebounds, but her team never got closer than 14.
Ohio State came to town later that week and did the same number on Minnesota’s backcourt in the Buckeyes’ 59-50 win. The Gophers shot 2-for-10 from outside and committed 30 turnovers.
A 19-0 run turned a 10-point Minnesota lead into a nine-point deficit. Ohio State built its lead to 15 and the Gophers never got closer than five.
What a perfect time to play the sixth-ranked team in the country.
The Gophers set a new team record for fewest points scored in the NCAA era in a 52-point pasting on Jan. 10 against Penn State.
Minnesota turnovers: 35.
Minnesota points: 30.
The Iowa game last Thursday completed the loss quad-fecta, using a 16-2 run midway through the first half for a 15-point lead by halftime.
“It’s difficult if you don’t have the desire to get it done,” Littlejohn said. “I think it’s difficult if you just don’t want to do it and it’s just frustrating for players and even coaches to be in a situation obviously no one wants to be in.
“You just have to find the silver lining and be able to do the good things and put them in situations where they can have success, and those are the things we are continuing to work on.”
According to coaches and players, the offense is what needs work. Here’s why:
In conference games the Gophers are barely shooting 32 percent.
They are 22 percent from behind the arc; Lieser and VanderHeyden are a combined 16-for-67 on treys.
They have committed 128 turnovers in five games, over 25 per game.
Bottom line: Minnesota scores 49 points per game and gives up 70.
Not good.
Depth has been a killer to Littlejohn’s squad. In December the Gophers lost starting point guard Antoinetta Blevins and then backup Trish McGhee for the season with ACL injuries. Then prize recruit Natea Motley left school and returned to Detroit. Center Kim Bell and forward Jackie Tate have also been bagged with injuries.
The team’s goal of a .500 overall record is within reach, but the squad is quickly learning the difference between nonconference teams like St. Louis and sixth-ranked Penn State.
“It’s totally different,” Littlejohn said of the losing streak compared to many streaks of the recent past. “We have a lot better talent. It’s young, but it’s talented. We haven’t seen two ACL’s, a Natea Motley leave and a Kim Bell. We haven’t been down to five healthy players, and that’s an obstacle.”
Given the state of her team and the conference her team plays in, the Gophers have little going for them right now. Of course, it could all be one big Y2K glitch, but Littlejohn isn’t banking on it.
“Everybody has obstacles to overcome, so you can’t dwell on it; just prepare for the next game and keep on pushing.”

Mark Heller covers women’s and men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected].