Rutgers’ stifling defense too much for Gophers women’s basketball

A truly dominant performance from Rutgers’ talented trio of Diamond Johnson, Arella Guirantes and Tekia Mack was too much for Minnesota to handle.

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Shannon Doyle

Gophers center Klarke Sconiers fights for a pass at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 2. The Gophers defeated Eastern Illinois 72-68.

Tony Liebert, Sports Reporter

A near-perfect second half of defense from Rutgers overwhelmed the Gophers women’s basketball team and resulted in an 83-56 defeat for Minnesota, as the Gophers moved to 7-10 on the season.

The Gophers’ unique path through the 2020-21 season continued Wednesday as they traveled to Piscataway, New Jersey, to face a Rutgers team that has postponed eight games due to COVID-19. After their month-long hiatus, the Scarlet Knights reeled off three straight victories by an average of 16.7 points.

Co-Big Ten preseason player of the year Arella Guitrantes leads long-time Rutgers head coach and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, C. Vivian Stringer’s team. The redshirt-senior guard averages a team-high 22 points, along with 5.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.3 blocks.

The Scarlet Knights are known for their aggressive defense, leading the Big Ten in turnovers forced (21.2) and steals (13.4). Minnesota had its work cut out for itself, facing a team that was 5-1 at home before Wednesday, with its only loss coming to first-place Maryland.

And Rutgers’ defensive pressure started early and often, forcing two quick Gophers’ turnovers to jump out to a 6-0 lead only two minutes into the game. Following a brief timeout, Minnesota began to settle in.

Gadiva Hubbard came off the bench in her first game appearance in nearly a month, providing two quick-made threes that cut the Rutgers’ lead down to three. The Scarlet Knight responded to take a 21-16 lead.

“[Gadiva’s] shooting well opens up things for me in the middle even more,” Minnesota forward Klarke Sconiers said. “I think definitely in the future we’re going to look more playing in-and-out because I think that is something that definitely helps the offense a lot.”

After a terrific start, Sconiers continued to make her presence felt as the game grew on. The sophomore post player had a team-high 11 first-half points coming off the bench and played 18 of 20 possible minutes in the half.

“[Sconiers] gave us a really good spark,” Gophers’ head coach Lindsay Whalen said. “When she gets to that left shoulder she’s really effective and really good.”

Whenever Minnesota cut into the deficit, Rutgers responded, with Diamond Johnson and Arella Guitrantes leading terrific guard play. Minnesota went into the half trailing 38-28.

Rutgers’ patented pressure defense shined in the third quarter. Tekia Mack completely took over the game, recording five steals in the quarter and adding to the Gophers’ total of 12 turnovers in the third quarter alone. Minnesota’s 4-of-13 shooting certainly did not help, extending its deficit to 60-39 heading into the final 10 minutes.

“They went strictly to their full-court pressure in the third quarter and we didn’t have an answer,” Whalen said. “We obviously did not respond like we needed to.”

The Scarlet Knights’ tremendous trio of guards continued to dominate in the fourth. Johnson, Guirantes and Mack combined to score 60 of Rutgers’ 83 points. Minnesota simply had no answer after its less than stellar third quarter, resulting in an 83-56 loss.

“You learn in every day, every game and every practice,” Whalen said. “Every time you come out here, you learn something about yourself, especially when there is adversity.”

Sconiers and Sara Scalia were the only two Minnesota players to score in double figures with 13 and 12 points, respectively.

Minnesota now has a quick turnaround, traveling to College Park, Maryland for a Feb. 20 matchup with the first-place Terrapins.