Gophers hope playing for WNIT title can be springboard for next season

Head coach Dawn Plitzuweit of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on during a game against the Michigan Wolverines in the Second Round of the Big Ten Tournament at Target Center on March 07, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota women’s basketball team is playing for a championship on Saturday.

This time last year, the Gophers had just hired Dawn Plitzuweit to replaced Lindsay Whalen. Now, they’re getting ready to face St. Louis for the WNIT Championship. They’d ultimately rather be playing in the NCAA Tournament, but they’re playing April basketball. Their hope is that it builds momentum for next season.

"The experience itself is something that is very, very valuable and it’s something that our players have done a great job of not only appreciating, but playing well in those moments," Plitzuweit said Friday via Zoom.

Mara Braun is unlikely to play Saturday after suffering a foot injury, different from the one that caused her to miss about two months during the Big Ten season. That means a bigger role for Amaya Battle, one she’s more than embraced this year. Battle had 18 points in Wednesday’s win at Troy to advance to the WNIT title game.

She’s excited the Gophers are still playing.

"I think any chance a team gets to play postseason no matter what, it’s great experience," Battle said. "It means a lot, looking back at end of last season when coach Whay left to now, never thought this would’ve happened. Dawn P. coming in and just seeing where she’s taking us, where we are now, it’s crazy."

From 11-19 to 20-15, the Gophers have made a leap in their first year under Plitzuweit. They’d like to cap it off by beating a St. Louis squad that’s won 10 of its last 11 games.

"We’re ready to win this thing. To come out on top and be playing our best at the end of the season and playing for a championship, it’s just an amazing feeling," forward Mallory Heyer said.

Their road to get their included home wins over Pacific and North Dakota State, a win at Wyoming and a win at Troy.

Their biggest adversity this time around might have been figuring out where the game would be played. There’s a robotics competition occupying Williams Arena and Maturi Pavilion this weekend, which means the game couldn’t be on campus. Plitzuweit and team officials pursued other venues, to no success between concerts, other events and logistical issues with venues that couldn’t host a basketball game.

It will be played at SIU-Edwardsville, a short drive from the St. Louis campus. It’s just one more thing to overcome.

"We’re looking at this this way, we got to play at home, got to play on the road, now we have a chance to play on a neutral site. All those are important opportunities for us," Plitzuweit said.