Gophers seek bounce back from tough loss at Maryland

Lindsay Whalen and the Gophers’ women’s basketball team left Maryland last Thursday night with a sick feeling.

Minnesota (19-8, 8-8), on the road, had the No. 8-ranked team in the country on the ropes. The Gophers had a 69-64 lead with 50 seconds left. The Terrapins scored the game’s last seven points, including the game-winning lay-up with less than a second left after stealing a Minnesota in-bounds pass.

A chance for a road win over a top-10 opponent in conference, gone just like that. It’s especially tough when you consider the Gophers had a 16-point lead in the second half, and led by double digits heading to the fourth quarter.

“The worst loss as a coach so far for me. We were all pretty sick to our stomachs for a couple days after that one because we had it,” Whalen said. That was for sure the hardest loss of the season. All you can do is learn from it and move on.”

The loss ended a six-game win streak for the Gophers, who are playing some of their best basketball of the season after losing four straight and seven of eight early in the Big Ten season. During their most recent win streak, the Gophers were beating opponents by an average of 14 points per game.

Three of the six wins were by double digits, including a 65-45 win at Purdue on Feb. 14 where Minnesota out-scored the Boilermakers 20-2 in the fourth quarter. Those two points came from the free-throw line as Purdue shot 0-of-11 from the field, including 0-of-4 from three-point range.

They limited the Boilermakers to 37 percent shooting from the field for the game, including just 3-of-10 from the perimeter.

After starting the Big Ten season 2-7, the Gophers are 8-8 with two league games left. They travel to Rutgers Thursday night and host Michigan State March 3 to end the regular season.

“I feel like we’re playing harder than most of the teams we’re playing against. We were 2-7 at one point and to be sitting here at .500 is a really good feeling,” Whalen said.

Two big reasons for the surge have been the play of forward Irene Garrido Perez and guard Jasmine Brunson. Perez played sparingly early in the season, but has played at least 33 minutes in eight straight games. That includes two games where she played all 40 minutes.

In her first full 40-minute game, Perez scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds. She played all 40 in the loss at Maryland, and scored 16 points in 38 minutes in a win over Penn State.

“I finally put her in. She’s been awesome, we can’t take her off the floor,” Whalen said.

Brunson has also seen an increased load in minutes, especially during the six-game win streak. She’s played at least 32 minutes in eight straight games, and over the win streak, averaged 12.3 points per game.

She’s averaging 8.4 points per game for the season and has started 25 of the 27 games this year after just one start last season. Brunson has scored in double figures in five of the Gophers’ past seven games, and her 17 against Penn State on Sunday was a season-high.

“I feel like all the work that’ve I’ve put in in the offseason is really showing right now, just the confidence I’ve gained from that,” Brunson said. “You get confidence from putting the work in. I’m real confident right now.”

The Gophers are hoping their play of late didn’t come too late. They’re 19-8 on the season, which includes a 6-4 record on the road. But they still have work to do if they’re going to secure their second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota’s RPI sits at No. 106, with a strength of schedule at No. 147. The combination doesn’t bode well for an at-large bid. The Gophers have two more big opportunities with a test at Rutgers Thursday. They host Michigan State March 3.

Minnesota beat Rutgers 60-46 earlier this season, and the Scarlet Knights will be playing to honor head coach C. Vivian Stringer, who has stepped away from the team until at least the Big Ten Tournament due to an illness.

Regardless of how the season plays out, it’s a vastly different feeling among the team now than during the skid that put them near the bottom of the Big Ten. They learned they had to fight their way back to where they are now, in sixth.

Whalen told her team they had to “keep at it.” They were going to break through, and the team had to believe her.

“The locker room really never wavered. We just understood that we were going to continue to put the work in behind the scenes, before practice, after practice. The coaches kept harping on the fact that we were going to break through eventually. So we just kept putting the work in and now we’re breaking through,” Brunson said.

They’re hoping that breakthrough translates to an NCAA Tournament bid on Selection Sunday. The Gophers have been to the tournament three times in the past 10 seasons.

For Whalen, the postseason has essentially already started.

“At this point in the season they’re all playoff games,” Whalen said.