Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Big Game 1-29-12: Gopher Women Shock Ohio State

If I had told you that the Gopher women would turn the ball over to the Ohio State Buckeyes 20 times today, and that the Buckeyes would grab 19 offensive rebounds, the prognosis would not be good.

The Gophers were not free of adversity, in other words, but they played through those ragged stretches to beat #9 Ohio State 76-65, dropping the Buckeyes to 7-2 in the Big 10 and into a 3-way tie for 2nd place. The Gophers get to 4-5, moving up from a tie for 8th place to a tie for 6th with Iowa and Michigan State.

Rachel Banham scored 20 points despite sitting out 7 minutes of the 2nd half with 4 fouls. Kiara Buford added 15 with 7 assists and 2 blocks. Katie Loberg added 13 and Kionna Kellogg 11 with 9 rebounds.

Minnesota thus beat a ranked team for the 1st time since Notre Dame in the 2009 NCAA tournament, and at Williams Arena for the 1st time since Ohio State in 2008.

The key was a 36-20 edge in the paint, as Loberg and Micaella Riche went to the rim early (Loberg scored the Gophers 1st 5 points) and often, hitting 10-of-19 shots between them.

Minnesota ripped off 3 key runs against the Buckeyes. Early on the Gophers scored 9 straight to erase a 6-3 Ohio State lead. Loberg scored 4 during the run while Leah Cotton had 2 assists and Buford 2 boards.  Then, with the Buckeyes leading 14-13, Minnesota scored 11 straight. This time it was Rachel Banham with 5 points and Kionna Kellogg with 4, 2 boards and 2 assists.

Finally, Ohio State guard Sam Prahalis hit a pair of 3s to bring the Buckeyes back from 63-53 to 63-59 in the wink of an eye. Kellogg hit perhaps the biggest shot of the day, a 3, the give Minnesota room the breath. A 9-0 run ensued as Banham scored twice and Loberg once. By then it was 72-59 with 3:15 left. It didn't feel like it was over until the clock said 1 minute, but in hindsight Kellogg's 3 was the dagger. The fat lady sang then, it's just that Williams Arena was too loud to hear her.

Three Stars

Another key--hey, when you've lost 4 of 5, and you beat a top 10 team, there's lots of keys--was the play of Kiara Buford. In fact, she was the #1 star. More than her 15 points, she won this game for Minnesota with her ball-handling and her 7 assists. Banham scored 20 points but had 6 turnovers and just 2 assists. When she was in there, the Buckeyes (mostly the lightning-quick Amber Stokes) harassed her pretty effectively. But when she went to the bench with 3 and then with 4 fouls, well, who could possibly protect and distribute the ball?

Especially with Leah Cotton on the bench. At no time during Banham's 7 minute blow did Cotton take the court. Either she is hurt, or it was a truly massive vote of no confidence by coach Borton. I assume she was hurt. But Buford took the ball and did a great job with it during that period.

Meanwhile, Sari Noga also played a lot of minutes--27 of them, many more than she's played probably in 2 months. And let's be honest, Sam Prahalis took her to the woodshed. Prahalis quick, Noga not quick. What was Pam thinking, making poor Sari guard Prahalis? And, indeed, Prahalis scored 26 points, 19 of 'em in the 2nd half when Sari played most of the way. But Sari scored 9 points on a pair of buckets and 4-for-4 FT, and added 2 assists, 2 steals and 1 turnover. On balance, a big plus given the absences of Banham and Cotton.

But star #2 was Prahalis, just to be clear.

And star #3? Tayler Hill scored 25 points but it took her 23 shots to do it. But she had 5 assists and 3 steals with 2 turnovers and, like Prahalis, played 40 minutes. Yes, star #3.

But #4 and #5 are Kellogg and Loberg and, again, the #1 factor in this game was the Gophers' ability to score in the paint.

20-2 or not, this is not a very good Ohio State team. There's only 2 options on offense and their interior defense is terrible. But they do some things well, they threw everything they had at the Gophers, and the Gophers hung in there.

The fact is that the Gophers are the most athletic that they've been in years. For example:

• People complain that Katie Loberg's not a real post, but she's the Gophers "5" and she is the most mobile 5 you could want to see. Most teams would accentuate that. Ohio State on the other hand has a huge 6-5 sophomore, Ashley Adams, who outweighs Loberg by 100 pounds at the post. Adams is fundamentally sound--handles the ball, passes the ball, hits the boards, etc. She put up some pretty good numbers: 6 points, 12 boards, 7 blocks (!), 3 steals, 2 assists. OK, 5 turnovers. But she is slow as molasses, and Loberg exploited that by repeatedly putting the ball on the floor and driving to the rim. Katie matched her assists and turnovers with half as many boards and no blocks or steals. But with her 13 points, the advantage today was to the more mobile post, Katie Loberg.

• Amber Stokes is a fabulous athlete. Her quickness on defense was one of Ohio State's 3 big advantages. But she is a one-way basketball player with no discernible offensive skills. OK, 5 offensive boards. But 1-for-8 with no assists. Buford was much better overall. Even Sari Noga, Stokes' exact opposite, weak of D but solid on the offensive end, was just as effective in the end. So, on the wing the Gophers are athletic enough with pretty good basketball skills.

• At the point, the advantage was to Prahalis. Banham had a pretty tough day overall considering she scored 20 points. But the Buckeyes' defensive pressure put her back on her heels much of the way, and coach Borton put the ball in Buford's hands every bit as much as Banham's and Buford was stronger with the ball. Prahalis, meanwhile, did it all. 25 points, 3 assists, 3 steals, and found time to piss off the home fans with her characteristic showboating. Frankly, I love her. Her attitude is annoying if she's on the other team, which she is, but if she was one of ours, it's exactly the kind of attitude you're looking for. But all that aside, she's also stronger with the ball than Banham and quicker on defense. As much as I love Rachel Banham, Prahalis ranks ahead of her in the pecking order of Big 10 point guards. And yet, on a day when Prahalis pretty much ran amok, the Gophers' solutions--Banham, Buford handling the ball, Noga defending--added up to a dead heat. Just because it took 3 Gophers to equalize her, there's no shame in that, and it says that coach Borton had a pretty good day putting the pieces together.

• And then there's Kionna Kellogg, probably the Gophers' best overall athlete: 11 points of 4-of-6 shooting, 9 boards, 3 assists to 1 turnover. Her opposite number, Kalpana Beach, was no match for her whatsoever and was pretty much invisible on the day. Advantage Minnesota by a wide margin.

• Finally of course there's Tayler Hill. Buford guarded her most of the day and I couldn't help but think, Buford beat Hill 2-for-2 in Minnesota state high school title games. There shouldn't be any lack of confidence there. And in the end, Hill did a fine impression of herself, getting to the rim with absolute impunity...some of the time. But Buford's and the Gophers team defense frustrated her just as often.  She scored 26 but shot 8-for-23 and 3-for-11 from the 3-point line. Tayler added 5 assists and 3 steals. All in all, a fine day but, again, Buford was just as good. Not as explosive as a scorer, of course, but she handled the ball against tough defensive pressure, and Hill didn't have to do that. Buford had 7 assists to Hill's 5, and even blocked a couple of shots.

In summary, Ohio State only had 1 athlete the Gophers couldn't match up with and while Prahalis had a terrific game, it wasn't enough on a day when Minnesota dug deep and consistently made plays when they were needed.

So, yeah, the Gophers have gotten more athletic. The fact that they often don't make plays like they did today--is that on the coach, or is that on the players? You tell me.

Player of the Day: Kiara Buford

Coach of the Day: Pam Borton

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