What a bittersweet night at Williams Arena. Yes, the Gopher women beat 4-9 Illinois as expected, though of course even expected wins have come to be somewhat unexpected. But that's secondary. The big event was the final home appearance of seniors Kiara Buford, Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt (unless the Gophers should end up in the NIT).
Buford scored 12 points with 7 boards and 5 assists in 32 minutes. Mastey, finally settling into a starting role 3+++ years into her Gopher career, scored 6 points with 6 boards ini 38 minutes. 38 minutes from a woman who could barely get 5 for much of her career! Voigt, just back from concussion symptoms, scored 4 points with 4 boards in 22 minutes.
It was Buford and Mastey who scored the Gophers' final 6 points, on 6-of-6 FT, though it's true that the game was already won. The score was tied at 45 when a Buford 2 gave the Gophers the lead for good. A pair of Kellogg FG made it 51-45 at 2:40, and a Banham steal and 3 made it a 9-point game with 1:52 left to play. The parade to the FT line followed.
The win was sweet. of course. They all are when you're 6-8 and 14-14. It was bitter because 3 very classy women are leaving us behind and moving on with their lives. But mostly it was bitter in the way "what coulda been" is bitter.
Four years ago the 3 came to Minnesota rated as among the top 20 recruiting classes in America. Buford, from St. Paul Central, had helped her team win 2 state championships and had earned all-state honors herself 3 times. Mastey had led Becker to the Class AAA title her senior year. Voigt had led a solid Park-Cottage Grove team for 4 years. None was Ms. Basketball. That was Courtney Boylan of Chaska, who ended up at Michigan. But nobody was disappointed in the recruiting class. Nobody thought Boylan would have been a better catch. (Kamille Wahlin, maybe, but never mind that now.)
And 2 of the 3 got off to a good start in 2008-2009. Voigt started all 32 games, scoring 6 points on 40 percent shooting with 5 rebounds. Buford came off the bench to score 7 points on 40 percent shooting. Mastey had difficulty adjusting from an inside to an outside position and contributed 2 points and 1 board in 7 minutes, shooting .352. More importantly, they were part of a successful team, led by Emily Fox, that went 11-7 in the Big 10 and 20-12 overall. That 20th win was a resounding 79-71 upset of Notre Dame in South Bend in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament. There was of course some dissatisfaction with the fact that Minnesota had been 8-1, then 17-6, then finished the regular season 2-4.
But surely better times were coming, with that top 20 recruiting class now having a year's experience under their belts. Well, no.
Minnesota started out 10-5 and then things went south. A 3-12 finish for 6-12 in the Big 10 and 13-17 overall was shocking to their fans, and there was blame enough for everyone. Buford picked up some of the slack from Fox' graduation, leading he team with 13 points per game, but her shooting percentage dropped just below 40. Voigt's scoring picked up to 8 ppg, her rebounds stayed at 5, but her FG percentage dropped to 38. Mastey again scored 2 ppg and her shooting percentage also dropped to 33 percent.
2011 looked like a rebuilding year with Brittany McCoy, Ashley Ellis-Milan and Katie Ohm moving on, and being replaced by Leah Cotton and Katie Loberg. And indeed it was. Gopher victories dropped from 13 to 12, and from 6 to just 4 in the Big 10. Buford's scoring increased to 15 and her shooting percentage to 41 and her assists to 3, but her turnovers skyrocketed. Voigt's scoring dropped from 8 to 7 points though her rebounds went from 5 to 6.5 and her shooting from 38 percent to 42. Mastey increased her scoring from 2 to 6, and she shot a solid 46 percent.
For the current season, fans for the 1st time in 4 years looked elsewhere for inspiration, to freshman Rachel Banham. And Kionna Kellogg was coming along, too. Still, a significant improvement in the Gophers' wins and losses would necessarily mean that the class of 2008/2012 was doing its part. And so they have.
Buford's scoring dropped from 15 to 14, and for the 1st time in 3 years she is not the team's leading scorer. But her assists remain at 3 per game and her shooting is a career best 41.5 percent. Still, a team-high 3 turnovers remain something of a problem.
Voigt has had the least productive season of her career, partly due to injuries. But after starting 32 of 32 games as a freshman, she started this year healthy and on the bench behind Kionna Kellogg. She is scoring a career-low 4 points per game and shooting 40 percent. Her rebounds, also 4 per game, are also her lowest ever. Always known for her defense and her rebounding, the fact is that even in high school she was not the type of player who could create her own shot. And, finally, after 3 years, coach decided she needed a little bit more of an offensive threat at the position.
Mastey, finally, has blossomed in these past 2 games, if you can call 2 games a blossoming, so it's hard to remember now that her junior year was more productive than this one by 6 points per game to 4. And her shooting has dropped from 46 to 43 percent. Still, she's been a more consistent player and a more valuable player based on her reliability. So she has finally gotten a well-deserved opportunity to log some time on the court. I'm thinking that after tonight, in fact, she could probably use a break. But, seriously, it was great to see her out there for 38 minutes as if to say coach Borton has finally developed some confidence in her, now that it's almost too late. And after pushing her out away from the basket and to the perimeter for 3 years, coach now says she's put Mastey in the starting lineup because of her rebounding. It makes one wonder what she could have accomplished if she'd simply been asked to do the things that she can do.
But, again, tonight the 3 combined for 22 points and 17 boards, below their average scoring output even as sophomores, much less last year or this. Still, it felt like they were the reason the Gophers won this game, as much as Rachel Banham who led in scoring with 19 points but had 1 assist and 5 turnovers. Of course, Buford had 6 turnovers. But down the stretch, the 2 seniors--Buford and Mastey--scored 8 points while their teammates scored 7.
Back to the Future
But seriously, how much are we going to miss them?
Well, frankly, not as much as we thought. Reinforcements are available.
Shayne Mullany will do some of the same things as Buford, but she'll be a freshman vs. Buford's having a track record after 4 years of college.
Mastey and Voigt? Well, again, there are replacements--Kellogg and Hirt promise to be much better, if Hirt isn't still "hirt."
Still, I'm feeling quite nostalgic about the class of 2008/2012. Pam Borton should be feeling pretty nostalgic about them, too, because they surely ought to be the last cohort that goes through a 4 year career without fulfilling their potential, where there aren't consequences at the top of the program. If Rachel Banham, for instance, doesn't finish up a lot better than 59-61, which is where the 2008/2012s are right now, then it will surely be time for a new direction.
But, frankly, that feels awfully kind. I mean, maybe the time is now because, in hindsight, I think the 2008/2012s had a lot more talent than they've ever shown. They're the lost generation of Gopher women's basketball. Not the first one, of course. But one of the lost generations and lost opportunities for Gopher women's basketball.