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Women’s basketball stresses need for intense defense against top-ranked teams

The team has a variety of players contributing to their performance on the court but have been struggling to overcome their top-ranked opponents.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
Forward Mallory Heyer raises her arms, preparing to defend a UConn Husky from making a layup on Nov. 19, 2023.

The intensity of the Gophers women’s basketball team carried them to victories in their last few matchups, but not against top-ranked teams such as UConn, Iowa and Indiana.

Gophers women’s basketball head coach Dawn Plitzuweit led the youngest team in the Big Ten to a 4-3 conference record, ranking them fifth in the conference.

The Gophers still have much of their conference season left to play. With Plitzuweit’s desire to field a defensively-intense team and develop her young players, the Gophers have the potential to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since the 2017-2018 season.

Plitzuweit transformed the identity of the Gophers to a defensively-driven team with 11 underclassmen. Over the last few conference matchups, she said her goal is to develop players by focusing on the little things.

“When we can continue to grow our games individually, collectively, then the big picture comes into play and then good things can happen for us,” Plitzuweit said.

Sophomore forward Mallory Heyer posted 18 points against Michigan State and matched her career-high 15 total rebounds, 12 of which were defensive boards.

After defeating Michigan State 69-50, Heyer said there were times when her team played tough defense and had performed better defensively in past games.

“I really do think we played hard on the defensive end today, but [Michigan State] also missed a lot of shots around the basket,” Heyer said.

Plitzuweit echoed Heyer on the team’s defensive performance against Michigan State, specifically in the first quarter.

It was not until the second half when Plitzuweit felt her team made adjustments to help each other.

Among the players stepping up and contributing to the Gophers’ success is Amaya Battle, who hit a three-point shot against Nebraska to give them a two-possession lead with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter. Battle is also a photographer with the Minnesota Daily.

When the shot the team originally drew up fell through, Janay Sanders, a guard on the team, knew Battle would hit the three.

Since joining the team, Sanders routinely invites Battle to the gym and acts as a supportive figure for her. Battle scored four shots from beyond the arc last season and now has made seven on the season, a testament to the work she put in with Sanders.

“She got ice water in her veins,” Sanders said.

The Gophers have players capable of stepping up in critical moments but have also experienced off-days.

Mara Braun, the No. 3 ranked scorer in the Big Ten, has been in a scoring slump herself after only putting up 10 points against Michigan State, 14 against Indiana, all of which occurred in the second half and nine against Nebraska.

Braun’s point totals are a sharp contrast to where she started the new year when she posted 20 points against Maryland and 17 against Michigan.

Freshman Grace Grocholski put up 19 points against Michigan. Four days later, she failed to put up any points against Nebraska.

Plitzuweit knows her players have off-days and said it is the goal for every college coach to figure out how to get their team to play at their full potential 100% of the time. Ultimately, when adversity hits players, she plans to find the gaps in the opponent’s defense.

“You’ve got to play and just take what the defense gives you,” Plitzuweit said. “That’s what you can control to the best of your ability.”

Junior Sophie Hart said she likes to act as a dominant presence below the basket because it is a key factor for what Plitzuweit looks for in creating a defensively intense team.

“She likes to play with a certain intensity on defense and so [I’m] trying to find ways that I can do that within myself,” Hart said. “I always just try to be more of a presence inside.”

For the young team, Plitzuweit said a win against a highly ranked team comes with experience, an understanding of the technical aspects of the game and the intensity required comes with more practice time together.

“Are we able to compete with [top] teams? Not for 40 minutes right now,” Plitzuweit said. “Are we working at getting to that point? Obviously, that is something our young ladies really want.”

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