Friday, January 15, 2010

Gopher Women Continue to Tease/Around the Big Ten

Way back in November, the Gopher women were picked to finish 3rd in the Big Ten, and early on they even received a few votes in the national polls. But 4 non-conference losses featuring some really horrendous shooting--32 percent at Utah, 29 percent against North Dakota State, 33 percent in a really bad home loss to Iowa State--served to lower expectations.

So, now that the Gophers are 4-2 in the Big Ten and have a share of 2nd place, well, what is a person to hope for, really? A realist would point out that Minnesota is 4-0 at home in the Big Ten and 0-2 on the road, and that that would seem to be indicative of something more along the lines of a 9-9 record, not the 12-6 you get if you simply extrapolate from 4-2. But I'm told that a realist is only a pessimist in disguise, that the Gophers are doin' fine, and the road wins will come.

Okay. Fine. I magnanimously agree to wait and see on that one. That's big of me (don't you think?) because I'm only going to have to wait 3 days to see about that, anyway. If road wins are going to come, surely they're going to come this Sunday at Northwestern, whom the Gophers have already beaten 73-65 at the Barn. But that, of course, was a big "tease." Minnesota dominated the Wildcats 43-24 in the 2nd half, which is great. But that means that they sleep-walked through the 1st half, trailing 40-31 at intermission and an alarming 37-21 at 5:51 of the 1st half.

So, will the real Gophers please stand up?

Clearly, the Gophers are capable of losing at Northwestern, which is not nearly the doormat they've been in recent years. Sure, they're 2-4 in the conference, but 11-6 overall with wins over then-#15 DePaul and at Kansas State, now 2-0 in the Big 12. Still, if road wins are going to come, they probably had better come now. Because the schedule isn't going to be getting any easier.

Whether Big Ten schedule-makers have done well by the Gophers is in the eye of the beholder. Four of the first 6, and 7 of the first 11 conference games are at the friendly confines. Well, that's great if the Gophers sweep at home and steal one on the road, or if a 4-2 (and maybe a 7-4) record builds the team's confidence for a successful stretch drive. On the other hand, we may be cursing the Gophers' draw when they play 5 of their final 7 on the road.

Still, the schedule is not the chief obstacle to success, nor even those opposing teams that want to win as badly as the Gophers do. The chief obstacle to success for the Gophers remains, er, the Gophers themselves.

• Kiara Buford has been stellar in Gopher victories (19 ppg in the conference) and invisible in their defeats (4 ppg).

• Ashley Ellis-Milan is a plugger whose successes (17 pts last night) give Everyman hope. But, midway through her senior year, she still has difficulty passing the ball out of the low post double-team. Prior to last night her Big Ten numbers featured barely more than 2 points (39 total) for every turnover (a team-high 17).

But enough realism. If there's something to celebrate--and, of course, at 4-2 and 11-6, there is--it's the play of guards China Antoine and Brittney McCoy.

• China Antoine joined the Gophers this year as an unknown, 5-foot-3 junior college transfer. Expectations were not high. But, despite Buford's occasional heroics, Antoine has become the Gophers MVP. First, she inveigled her way into the starting lineup. Now, she has gradually replaced McCoy as the 1, the primary ball-handler, thus upgrading the Gophers' ability to protect the ball and get into their offense. But more than that, she is an unholy terror with her on-ball defense. And, she has raised her scoring average from 7 ppg to 14 as a starter while becoming the Gophers' best 3-point shooter. In fact, her percentage from beyond the arc (45 percent) is vastly better than her percentage on 2s (31 percent). If there's a problem with her play, it's those forays into the paint resulting in shots that have little chance of going through the hoop.

• Brittney McCoy, meanwhile, is thriving with Antoine as her running mate because the wing suits her skills better than the point anyway. Her on-ball defense remains solid, but on the wing she can also use her long reach to challenge the passing lanes and get some steals and deflections. The two of them represent a formidable defensive presence against almost any opponent. Shooting the ball continues to be a problem, however, though it's true that her 2-for-2 3s against Northwestern, and 5-for-9 field goals against Iowa were key to those 2 victories. But whether her 9-for-19 shooting over the past 3 games represents real progress remains to be seen.

As well as McCoy has been playing, there is rejoicing that the Gophers won last night without a significant contribution from her. She got into foul trouble and played "only" 29 minutes. Despite her shooting woes, McCoy has been so indispensable that 29 minutes of her time was usually a recipe for disaster.

So, having shown that they can win without a premium contribution from McCoy, the Gophers now need to show that they can win without the same from Buford. Even more importantly, they need to show that they can win on the road in the Big Ten. Despite the recent improvement in their guard play and their current residence in 2nd place in the conference, until they do that, I'm afraid their success must continue to be classified as a "tease."

It's Always Something

Even with the blowout of Purdue, the natives remain restless as Pam Borton's bench keeps getting shorter and shorter and shorter. Katie Ohm and Zoe Harper played 30 minutes, and Leah Cotton, Katie Loberg and Brianna Mastey played 8. It's hard to argue that the game wasn't over when the lead reached 20 at 59-39 at about 7:00 or, if not then, then how about 66-42 at 3:58. And yet, Mastey only checked into the game at about the 1:00 with the Gophers ahead 72-47. That should be a confidence builder.

Around the Big Ten

But for a Penn State comeback at Iowa, the Gophers would have sole possession of 2nd place in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes led the Lady Lions 29-24 at the half, 49-40 at 9:36, and 52-51 at the 5:00 mark. But Penn State closed out the game on a 28-13 run, scoring on 12 of their final 15 possessions. Down 49-40, the Lions scored on 4 straight possessions as guard Alex Bentley hit a 3, got a steal and a breakaway 2, then assisted on a pair of 3s by Tyra Grant. The loss kept the Hawkeyes reeling at 1-5 and in last place in the conference. The Lady Lions are 4-2.

The Wisconsin Badgers shocked Michigan State 48-45, roaring back from a 35-23 deficit at 15:28 at East Lansing. This ought to finally knock the heretofore Teflon Spartans out of the national rankings. They went into the game #20 and 23 in the 2 major polls despite a 2-3 start in the conference. Now they're 2-4, thanks to the Badgers' 25-10 run to close out the game. Reserve Taylor Wurtz scored 16 points, including the game-winning lay-up at 0:52, to give Wisconsin sole possession of 4th place in the Big Ten at 4-3.

Indiana and Michigan also battled inside of 1:00 before the host Hoosiers got the game-winner from Jori Davis at 0:41. Indiana led 39-34 at the half and 52-43 at 11:33. The Wolverines took the lead at 55-54 and again at 60-59 but never led by more than 1 point, and in the end succumbed mostly to Hope Elam's 24 points and 10 boards.

Ohio State beat Illinois 72-61 to remain unbeaten in the conference at 6-0.


  1. It's Always Something. This time it's the Gophers failing to score on their last 3 possessions of the game, while Northwestern scored on all 3 of theirs. And, on their very last possession, the Wildcats misfired three times, corralled the offensive board three times, and finally a Gopher foul was called. The winning point went through the hoop with :02 on the clock. A cold Omaha indeed.

  2. In fairness, I must add that China Antoine did not play. The word right now is a serious ACL injury, and she may be done for the year. If that's the case, the Gophers will be scrambling to avoid 10th place.