Year of frustration nearing a close

Since a heartening 60-50 win over Michigan, Minnesota has lost 4-of-5; conversely, the Wolverines have won 3-of-4.

by Jesse Mandell-McClinton

Only a week away from the Big Ten tournament, the womenâÄôs basketball team is nearing the end of whatâÄôs been a rocky season.

After a seven game slide earlier this year, Minnesota (11-16, 3-11 Big Ten) is again headed in the wrong direction fast, losing its last four games. The Gophers finish the regular season against a pair of Michigan teams this week, hoping to find some momentum before heading to Indianapolis for the tourney.

Minnesota heads on the road first to face Michigan (16-10, 9-5) tonight, the only Big Ten team that hasnâÄôt beat the Gophers this year. Their first matchup on Jan. 30 ended in a 60-50 win for the Gophers, their largest margin of victory in the Big Ten this season. Since then, Minnesota has lost four of five to drop into a tie for ninth in the Big Ten while Michigan has won three of four and currently sits third in the conference.

The GophersâÄô record this year, however, doesnâÄôt seem to reflect their abilities. Of their 11 losses in conference, eight were decided by seven points or fewer. Opposing coaches throughout the year have talked about the Gophers being a team they donâÄôt want to face in the tournament, and the players and coaches have remained upbeat through the rough patches.

TheyâÄôll face a Michigan team coming off a 68-66 win at Wisconsin last Saturday. It was only the BadgersâÄô second conference loss at home this year and MichiganâÄôs first win at the Kohl Center in three years.

The Wolverines currently have three players averaging double-digit points âÄî Veronica Hicks (11.6), Rachel Scheffer (10.3) and Carmen Reynolds (10.0). Minnesota will have to repeat the strong defensive performance from a few weeks ago against Michigan, who has scored 156 points in its last two games. The Gophers are actually 10-2 when holding opponents under 60 this year.

In order for the Gophers to hang with the Wolverines, they need senior China Antoine to get back in the scoring mix. The guard and captain netted just one basket in her last three games. She was solid in MinnesotaâÄôs win over the Wolverines, scoring 10 points to go along with three assists and a pair of steals.

Coach Pam Borton has asked for more production from her backcourt, and a strong game from Antoine could help take some of the offensive pressure off leading scorer Kiara Buford, who took 20 field goal attempts in the GophersâÄô most recent loss.

Things will get no easier on Sunday as MinnesotaâÄôs last regular season game comes against No. 8 Michigan State, which comes into the game on a six-game winning streak. The Spartans (24-3, 12-2) have been a force in the Big Ten all year, dropping only two games, at Iowa and at Ohio State.

Michigan State beat the Gophers in East Lansing, Mich., 66-54, earlier this season and comes into the game with the best team defense in the conference, giving up an average of 55 points a game. ItâÄôll be a tough matchup for Minnesota, but as coach Borton has said throughout the year, no game is a sure thing this year in the Big Ten.

Any hopes of postseason play for the Gophers lie in the teamâÄôs performance in the Big Ten tournament, and theyâÄôll get to prepare against two of the best teams in the conference in their final two games. ItâÄôll be their last chance to put a winning touch on the programâÄôs most challenging regular season under Borton.