Gophers survive scare in season opener from Eastern Illinois

Sophomore guard Sara Scalia, five-star freshman Alexia Smith, transfer post player Laura Bagwell-Katalinich, and freshman guard Caroline Strande were all on the bench for Wednesday’s season opener.

Gophers+Forward+Jasmine+Powell+approaches+defenders+in+Williams+Arena+on+Sunday%2C+Feb.+10.+The+Gophers+suffered+a+defeat+against+Michigan+52-77.

Liam Armstrong

Gophers Forward Jasmine Powell approaches defenders in Williams Arena on Sunday, Feb. 10. The Gophers suffered a defeat against Michigan 52-77.

Tony Liebert

With four rotation players out due to either an injury or illness, Minnesota faced an uphill battle in its season opener against Eastern Illinois, but left victorious 72-68.

Sophomore guard Sara Scalia, five-star freshman Alexia Smith, transfer post player Laura Bagwell-Katalinich, and freshman guard Caroline Strande were all on the bench for Wednesday’s season opener.

The Gophers who did suit up began their 2020 campaign with an up and down performance. Syracuse transfer Kadi Sissoko opened her Minnesota career with quite a game. Having not appeared in a college game in over a year, the redshirt-sophomore finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and two assists.

“She is really a great player and we all knew it. It is just fun when your teammate is doing as good as she was,” Gophers’ point guard Jasmine Powell said.

Eastern Illinois’ Lariah Washington did not go down without a fight. Washington, a St. Cloud, Minn. native and member of the All-OVC preseason team, finished with 22 points of her own.

“She is the returning freshman of the year in the conference. There is no question that she had a great game, give her credit she played a heck of a game,” Gophers’ head coach Lindsay Whalen said.

Whalen quickly established a short rotation with only seven players making an appearance all game. The lack of depth saw the Gophers get off to a slow start, trailing 14-17 after the first quarter.

Sophomore point guard Jasmine Powell struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, shooting 3-14 from the field, yielding only seven points along with four turnovers.

“She is going to be on the top of everyone’s scouting report all year. They switched every ball screen and made it hard for us,” Whalen said. “She knows that some of her turnovers were unforced, but at the same time we don’t win if she is not out there.”

Sophomore center Klarke Sconiers added productive minutes from the post resulting in eight first-half points and five rebounds. Eastern Illinois’ 48% shooting from the field and 40% from behind the arc proved to be instrumental in the Gophers’ two-point deficit going into the break down 31-33.

Whalen’s team came out of the locker room with a different level of intensity, tempo, and decisiveness. They opened the third quarter on an 18-7 run extending their lead all the way to nine. Powell was leading the offense with a different level of instinctual play as she was seeming to find her rhythm.

Eastern Illinois did not fold in, as they kept within striking distance all the way until the clock hit zero. Sissoko picked up her pivotal fourth foul about halfway through the fourth quarter, and it seemed that the Panthers had gotten back into it.

Whalen made the decision to sit her on the bench at the first dead ball following the call after playing nearly the entire game prior. The Paris, France native returned with about three minutes remaining in the game, setting up the Gophers to lean on their two stars, Sissoko and Powell down the stretch.

Sissoko would eventually foul out with 38.7 seconds remaining, but it was too late for an EIU comeback and Minnesota survived 72-68.

The lack of fans was an experience that was hard to describe. It provided a unique environment that most players would not expect when competing inside Williams Arena.

“It is really different. I am used to Coach Whalen trying to hype up the crowd and she couldn’t do that this time except for the cutouts. It is really weird, but it’s kinda like practice,” Powell said.

The Gophers will next host Drake on Sunday, Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. as they look to begin the season 2-0.