Gophers women’s basketball struggles against Illinois after nine-day layoff

Minnesota was without two starters and four players overall, an absence that proved too much to overcome in its regular-season finale.

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

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

The Gophers women’s basketball team aimed to spoil Illinois’ senior night Friday but came up short, falling 72-64.

After a nine-day layoff, Gophers women’s basketball returned Friday for a matchup with Illinois, marking their final regular-season game of the season. Their extended break was prompted by COVID-19 issues within the Gophers program, resulting in a postponement of their Feb. 28 contest with Michigan.

Minnesota now returned to face an Illinois team that previously only had one win in Big Ten conference play. The Gophers got the best of the Fighting Illini in their Feb. 10 duel, ending in an 83-73 Gophers’ victory. The Gophers looked to slow down Jeanae Terry Friday, who is second on Illinois in points per game (10.8), first in rebounds (7.9) and first in assists (4.3).

The Gophers began Friday one step behind, as they expected to only have eight players in uniform. Second leading scorer Jasmine Powell (14.5 points per game) remained out due to an ankle injury, while Kayla Mershon, Erin Hedman and Caroline Strande were all out due to undisclosed reasons.

Initially, Minnesota could not shake off its rust, as Illinois controlled much of the first quarter. Fortunately for the Gophers, Sara Scalia and Kadi Sissoko were ready for the increased offensive workload. Scalia led the team with six points in the quarter, while Sissoko added five points and two assists. Illinois held a 19-18 lead after 10 minutes of play.

It continued to be a back-and-forth affair for the remainder of the first half. It was the usual suspects for Minnesota, as Scalia and Sissoko led with nine points apiece, and both continued to facilitate the offense with two and three assists, respectively.

Redshirt freshman Grace Cumming joined the duo, scoring career-high nine points of her own in the half. It was a very competitive first half with moments of each team looking to pull away, but the other responded with timely shots. A 35-35 tie heading into halftime set up for a tantalizing second half.

“[Cumming] came out and was aggressive,” Gophers’ head coach Lindsay Whalen said. “It was fun to see her knock a few shots down, absolutely.”

Neither team could extend its lead in the third quarter as the game continued to go back-and-forth. Unfortunately, the Gophers roster only got smaller. At the 4:43 mark of the quarter, Sissoko took a nasty spill slamming the back of her head on the court, which took her out of the game.

“It’s tough; I thought [Sissoko] was the best player on the floor tonight,” Whalen said. “We hope she is okay; she’ll get re-evaluated.”

Minnesota seemed to miss Mershon’s defensive presence all game. A 34-20 deficit in paint points through the third, as well as four fouls from both Klarke Sconiers and Cumming helped Illinois close the quarter on a 6-0 run. The Fighting Illini carried a 57-51 lead heading into the final quarter.

“[Mershon] has been very important,” Whalen said. “Obviously, when we have somebody out, we all have to step up.”

Sconiers fouled out at the 7:58 mark in the fourth quarter, leaving an already hobbled team down two more starters. The Gophers could not overcome the insurmountable roster deficits as Illinois continued to find great success in the post. Illinois’ Eva Rubin finished with a game-high 16 points en-route to the Fighting Illini victory.

“It’s been a tough year for all programs in college basketball, and we’re just playing the hand that was dealt,” Whalen said.

The Gophers finish the regular season 8-12 and currently sit 10th in the conference, as their focus shifts to the Big Ten Conference tournament with a handful of games left to play across the league.