But I was also prepared to lament North Dakota State's struggles, and so I'm going to do that, too. The Bison won 5 NCAA titles back in the day, and were runners-up 3 other times. Stewartville, MN, native and NDSU grad Kasey Morlock turned up a couple years ago among the NCAA's official all-time Division 2 all-stars. Coach Amy Ruley won 671 games in 29 seasons. As recently as 2007, the Bison soundly beat the Gophers, 62-48, at Williams Arena. And, just to prove it wasn't a fluke, they stayed within 68-65 of Minnesota the following year, also at the Barn.
All of that had to be a lot of fun. And, now? Well, how much fun can it be, really, being just another D1 mid-major Cinderella-wannabe in a cold Vermillion? Certainly the Bison didn't have much fun last night, getting off just 35 field goal attempts while committing precisely as many turnovers, 19 of them on Gopher steals. On the offensive end, at least, they spent most of the night struggling just to connect on a few passes and to maintain possession of the ball, even out beyond the three-point arc, sometimes even in the backcourt.
On defense, they too often found Gophers between them and the basket they were supposed to defend, especially when the Gophers were able to get into transition. The result was a lot of reaching, resulting in 24 personal fouls and 3 Bison fouling out. The Gophers showed their usual weakness, making just 29 percent of their own field goal attempts. When was the last time a team, any team at any level, shot 29 percent and won by more than 25 points? But Minnesota did just that in part with their defense, but also by getting to the free throw line for 36 attempts, and by making 27 of them.
The Bison, in a word: Slow. In 3 more words: Lack ball-handling skills. The Gophers, with a couple exceptions I'll mention below, aren't quick, either, and yet they easily out-quicked NDSU.
Both teams started slowly. It was still 0-0 at 16:14, when Ashley Ellis-Milan hit 2 free throws for the Gophers. NDSU never led. Twelve minutes later it was 23-8 when the Bison mounted their first run of the night, getting within 26-21 late in the first half. The Gophers pulled away again to a 10-point lead at 33-23 early in the second half when NDSU hit back-to-back threes to get within 33-29. From there it was all Minnesota as an 18-0 run made it 51-29 at 8:23. The final score was the largest margin of the night.
China Antoine kicked off the big run with a 3 off of an offensive rebound and assist by AEM. She followed that with 3 steals in under a minute-and-a-half, and then hit another 3 at 9:45. I was wrong about Antoine, thinking she was another Kay Sylva. No, she has the best combination of skills and instincts of anybody on the Gophers' roster. At 5-foot-3, that isn't always going to get it done, but she can play. She finished with 9 points and 4 steals, making 3-of-5 shots from long-range. She's got to learn not to take the ball to the rim, however. She was 0-for-5 on 2 pointers.
I wasn't wrong about Leah Cotton, because I hadn't said anything about her. But I'm surprised. She's quick, she has good basketball instincts and, most importantly, she gets to the rim and creates her own shot better than any Gopher since Lindsay Whalen. As a result, she shot 10 free throws, making 9 of them en route to scoring a team-high 15 points. I am also surprised at her size. From the second deck, she doesn't look much bigger than Antoine. She's listed at 5-8 but I don't think so.
Zoe Harper had a great game with 8 points, 9 boards and 3 steals in just 16 minutes. She uses her body effectively to create space in the paint. Brittany McCoy helped Antoine, Cotton and Kiara Buford to harass the Bison guards, and matched Antoine's 4 steals. Ellis-Milan made just 2-of-10 shots but had a team-high 3 assists, and she plays hard. Brianna Mastey contributed 3 points, 4 boards and a team-high 2 blocks. It was great to see Kristen Dockery come into the game, too. She's got a great athletic-looking body, and she responded with an assist, a turnover and a steal in just 2 minutes of play.
Katie Ohm's shooting slump continued, however. She was 0-for-3 from the field, all 3s, and even missed both of her free throw attempts. And, when she's not scoring, she's not contributing. She doesn't play a lot of defense and was exposed last night as a poor passer. It's not so much that she throws the ball away, it's the failure to see and to deliver passes to open players that is a much bigger issue. B. Mastey still looks a little bit lost out there, and Katie Loberg, too.
Bottom line: I don't care if the Gophers shot 50 percent and scored 90 points per game in the Subway Classic (2 games). With their history, I'm afraid that the team that shot 29 percent against the Bison last night is the real Gophers. When you shoot like that, good shot selection becomes key and the Gophers don't show that either. They threw up too many 3s that had no chance of going in and, on too many 2 point shots, getting fouled was the only way the Gophers were going to score. NDSU cooperated. Other teams won't. And, Antoine and Cotton showed particularly poor shot judgment. Sometimes you just say, hey, they're scorers. In the context of this team, it could be a problem.
Still, forgetting the Ws and the Ls, Antoine and Cotton will make this year's Gophers more watchable than they've been since, well, you-know-who. In 2010-2011 they'll be your starting guards and, with a year of seasoning, they could be the best guard tandem the Gophers have had since Whalen and whomever. Pretty high praise for a couple of players who were widely regarded as marginal recruits.