Gophers women’s basketball builds a foundation through season’s ups and downs

Minnesota’s inexperienced roster showed potential this season, finishing 8-13 in Lindsay Whalen’s third season as head coach.

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Shannon Doyle

Gophers forward Kadi Sissoko blocks Eastern Illinois’ Karle Pace at Williams Arena on Wednesday, Dec. 2. The Gophers defeated Eastern Illinois 72-68.

Tony Liebert

The Golden Gophers women’s basketball team concluded its 2020-21 campaign with a record of 8-13, following a March 10 loss to Nebraska in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

There were very few expectations for Minnesota entering this season. It was without 49.1% of its scoring from the previous year and senior guard Gadiva Hubbard was the lone returning upperclassman who contributed to the 2019-20 season. A roster of nine underclassmen and two incoming transfers gave the Gophers a serious challenge entering a season in the middle of a pandemic.

Minnesota’s challenges grew, as its first game of the season began with four rotational players on the sideline due to either injury or illness. As players began to work back into their rhythm and grow with their unfamiliar teammates, the Gophers finished 1-1 in non-conference play and went on to win only one of their first seven Big Ten games.

Most teams might have packed it in for the season given the circumstances, but Gophers head coach Lindsay Whalen rallied the troops, reeling off wins in five of their next seven games. The Gophers season had completely turned around and their young players seemed to finally be comfortable in their roles.

“We’ve had more time playing together,” Whalen said after the team’s win against Nebraska on Jan. 19. “I told our team today, this is our 10th game and we’ve had five or six where everyone is able to play, so I think it’s just about the time together in the gym.”

Right when things started to look up, sophomore point guard Jasmine Powell suffered an ankle injury against Maryland, an injury that would put her on the shelf for the season. Things only got worse, as “COVID-19 related issues” within the team on top of injuries to sophomore guard Sara Scalia and redshirt sophomore forward Kadi Sissoko left Minnesota’s roster decimated heading into the Big Ten tournament. The Gophers’ hopes of a Cinderella-run in the postseason were shattered.

“Not every day is going to be 75 and sunny and living in Minnesota, we just literally had a stretch where it was minus 20,” Whalen said after the team’s final game. “Today was a day where we obviously had adversity.”

Throughout the season, Whalen had used the popular game Jenga as a motivational tactic for her team. The blocks exemplify building a foundation and getting better every day — something that certainly resonated with the group, as they continued to improve week in and week out no matter what challenges they faced.

“We gotta just keep building every day to get better,” Scalia said. “We have to keep building the foundation, and we have started to do that.”

On the surface, it might be hard to pull any positives from an 8-13 season, but Whalen learned a lot about her team over the last four months.

The Gophers’ three leading scorers all have at least two years of college eligibility remaining, while every player on the team appeared in at least five games. Looking ahead to next season, they will likely return 80% of their scoring production with a chance to return it all, as redshirt senior Gadiva Hubbard and graduate student Laura Bagwell Katalinich have yet to announce whether they will utilize their extra season of eligibility.

The future’s looking bright in Dinkytown, as Minnesota’s talented young roster continues to add blocks to its Jenga tower.