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Women’s basketball concludes season, mistake-riddled performance

Mara Braun’s scoring explosion in the second half was not enough for Minnesota to overcome Penn State’s full-court press or their myriad of turnovers.
Image by CJ Bonk
Forward Alanna Micheaux shoots the ball at the game against Nebraska on Wednesday, Feb. 15.

This year’s Minnesota-Penn State trilogy contained a multitude of notable moments for the Gophers, but its last episode concluded on a somber note. The Nittany Lions routed the Gophers on Wednesday, winning the Big Ten tournament’s first game 72-67 and putting Minnesota’s season to rest.

The Gophers’ performance fluctuated between extremes throughout the game. Their abundance of turnovers early on placed them in a perpetual state of strife while they attempted to claim the lead.

Players for Minnesota struggled against Penn State’s staunch defense, led by Big Ten All-Defensive guard Leilani Kapinus. They launched cross-court passes to avoid the pressures of a Nittany Lion double team, only for the ball to be intercepted. When they were able to get the ball across halfcourt, a subtle hesitation on a dribble resulted in a defender swiping the ball away.

“I thought that when we kept our spacing and we played against the press with some pace, we were able to break it,” Minnesota Head Coach Lindsay Whalen said after the game. “The times when we did turn it over, [we were a] little bit back on our heels, and we didn’t provide outlets for each other.”

Soon enough, Penn State was up 21-3 with two and a half minutes left in the first quarter. Gopher freshmen Mara Braun and Amaya Battle would help trim the 18-point deficit down to 12 by the end of the quarter. Senior Isabelle Gradwell hit a 3-pointer a minute into the second quarter and moved it within single digits.

The scoring stint was brief, however, as Minnesota forward Alanna Micheaux, an essential piece in their previous contest against Penn State, picked up her third foul. Down by 12, Whalen decided to bench the Gophers’ top rebounder and preserve her for the second half.

Penn State and Minnesota traded layup-for-layup and 3-pointer for 3-pointer up until halftime. The Gophers barely won the exchange by a margin of 2 points but closed out the half down 35-25 and with a baker’s dozen of turnovers.

“We’re a bunch of fighters,” Braun said after the game. “No matter how young we are, how inexperienced, we’re going to give a fight no matter what.”

The Wayzata native finished as the game’s highest scorer with 25 points. Throughout the contest, she made one-third of her 3s (4-12) and 43.5% of her shots overall (10-23).

It took Braun until the second half to start warming her shots up. But once Battle passed the ball back to her for a catch-and-shoot behind the arc, Minnesota found themselves back within single digits, and it began to feel like a new game.

Shortly after, the Gophers altered back to making their typical mistakes.

Minnesota gave the ball away to Penn State eight times following Braun’s bucket and let up 17 points. By the end of the third quarter, the Gophers’ 7-point deficit doubled. It wasn’t until Gradwell’s 3-pointer with four minutes and thirty seconds left in the fourth and final quarter that Minnesota’s hopes of redemption became a possibility.

A minute later, Battle was face-to-face with Kapinus and gave her a taste of her own medicine, snatching the ball away and going coast-to-coast. She was fouled on her successful lay-in and sunk her free throw. Battle returned to the charity stripe on the following possession and made both free throws, bringing Minnesota within 7.

The game went scoreless for the next minute-and-a-half but consisted of two jump balls, four missed shots and plenty of scrapping in the paint. Gradwell and Micheaux broke the temporary chain of turmoil by each knocking down a jumper, tying the game at 66 a piece.

Penn State responded with a timeout and drew up a play for guard Makenna Marisa to drive to the basket. She scored, but the refs called a foul on Gophers sophomore Maggie Czinano on the shooting attempt, bringing Marisa to the line.

The Gophers’ production see-sawed till the very end, and when the game’s allotted time was up, their score was just below Penn State’s.

Minnesota finished the season with an overall record of 11-19, second-to-last in the Big Ten. Braun led the Gophers in points this year with 407 (15.7 per game), Micheaux led in rebounds with 221 (8.2pg) and Battle led in assists with 114 (4.2pg).

After the game, Gradwell, with puffed-up cheeks and holding back tears, reminisced on her final year as a college athlete.

“Despite our record, this was like one of my favorite years as a collegiate player,” she said. “Just from my teammates, the coaches, just believing in me as a player, as a person, and really caring about me.”

Gradwell received a few pats on the back for comfort from Braun as she continued to speak.

“Coming in, I had reached out to the coaches, wanting to get closer to home, and Coach said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to play a lot. We’d love to have your experience,’” she said. “She gave me a shot, and that was all I asked for. Man, I’m grateful I got this opportunity.”

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