I had hoped to see Pam Borton's Minnesota Gophers and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits of coach Aaron Johnston, often mentioned as a possible successor to Borton, play one another in the Best Buy Classic, and it almost happened. Well, they didn't almost meet for the championship, which is what I really hoped for. They almost played for 3rd place is what almost happened.
The Gophers blew a late lead but then came back from the dead, down 72-66 in OT, to defeat scrappy Washington State 87-83 in 2OT. Rachel Banham (34) and Micaela Riche (29) combined for 63 points, but the Gophers nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory due to 29 turnovers and 5-of-20 shooting from Banham and Riche's teammates. SDSU did not glimpse any jaws of victory, losing to Villanova 71-47.
That set up today's games: SDSU vs. Washington State for 3rd place, followed by Minnesota vs. Villanova for the title. Based on Saturday's play, Villanova looked like a solid fave going into the final. So SDSU beat WSU 65-56 in the 3rd place game. Villanova beat SDSU by 24. So 'Nova should be WSU by 33, whereas the Gophers played WSU even for 49 minutes. So 'Nova looked a lot better halfway through Sunday, too.
But, surprise. Instead, Minnesota beat 'Nova 75-60. Like they say, it's all about match-ups. Or, it's early. The Gophers are still finding themselves. OK, I don't know what it is/was. But everything that went wrong yesterday went, well, a little bit better today. 29 turnovers yesterday, 16 today. 5-for-20 shooting by players not named Banham and Riche yesterday. 11-for-24 today.
And what went well yesterday went well today. Banham and Riche, that is. 33 points, 12-for-23, 52 FG percent.
The Gophers ran out to a 20-8 lead. The Wildcats got within 7 (33-26) at half time and 35-30 early in the 2nd half. A 2 by Banham and a 3 by Sari Noga made it a 10 point game. It took 7 minutes but a Kayla Hirt bucket after a steal and assist by Shayne Mullaney made it 11, and 'Nova never got within single digits again.
But the big news was the play of Shayne Mullaney. 22 minutes, 4 points, 1-for-1 shooting, 2-for-2 FT, and best of all 4 assists. But then there were 3 turnovers. Mikalya Bailey played 14 minutes, she also shot 1-for-1, with 2 assists and 1 turnover. Leah Cotton played 22 minutes, made 1-of-4 FG but got to the FT line, like she did yesterday, and made 6-of-7 FT for 8 points. Cotton added 3 assists and 1 turnover. Bailey has clearly been the #2 guard (or, rather, the #1 #2 guard) behind Banham, but Mullaney and Cotton are in the mix if they can keep playing like they did today.
Meanwhile Kionna Kellogg played 34 minutes and Kayla Hirt 20. Each scored 8 points. Hirt had 6 boards, Kellogg 3.
Sari Noga shot just 1-for-5 but ended up with 9 points, 10 boards, 2 assists and 3 steals.
This was by far the Gophers best performance of the year. But will this be the team that barely got by Washington State , 11-19 a year ago? Or the one the handled 'Nova, 17-14 a year ago?
But on a more positive note, if they can beat Washington State and Villanova, surely they can beat Maine and/or Ohio and/or UNLV next week in the Subway Classic at the Barn. Can't they?