Lindsay Whalen calls first Gophers season 'learning experience'

Lindsay Whalen’s inaugural season as the head coach of her alma mater was one big learning experience, and it’s not over yet.

Whalen and the Gophers women’s basketball team went to the Big Ten Tournament last week and suffered a quick exit, falling to Indiana in the first round 66-58. The Hoosiers avenged a home February loss to the Gophers in the process.

Minnesota finished the season 20-10 overall and is likely headed to the WNIT. Their RPI at 108, combined with a weaker strength of schedule, doesn’t bode well for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Whalen is most proud of how her squad handled in-season adversity. The Gophers started 12-0 and were ranked as high as No. 12 nationally before losing four straight games in the Big Ten and six of seven. They went 2-7 in the first half of the league schedule, and won seven of their last nine to finish an even 9-9.

“We were 2-7, that’s when it was almost like sink or swim. I was so proud our team after the Senior Night. We were 2-7 and to finish 9-9 in the conference, flip it and go 7-2, that was a really cool accomplishment so I felt great about that,” Whalen said.

The biggest reasons for their turnaround midway through the season came on defense, and switching to a smaller lineup that gave the Gophers a boost in perimeter shooting. Last year, Minnesota was ranked in the 300s in scoring defense. This year, they finished No. 65 nationally, allowing 59.6 points per game.

They also made more shots from the perimeter, something that ultimately doomed the Gophers in the loss to Indiana. Minnesota’s two All-Big Ten players, Kenisha Bell and Destiny Pitts, shot a combined 13-of-44 from the field (29.5 percent) and 1-of-10 from three-point range.

The Gophers shot just 33 percent from the field in the loss, 1-of-15 from the perimeter and had 14 turnovers.

“We went out there and didn’t come back with the results we wanted. We felt like we were playing well and had a good run in us, but again as a first-year coach, you learn a lot about how to get the team prepared for tournament action,” Whalen said. “All I can say is I’ll be better in the future.”

The play of Bell and Pitts is largely what got the Gophers to 9-9 in the Big Ten after a slow start. Pitts has scored in double figures in 13 straight games, and scored at least 19 points in 10 of the Gophers last 12 games. Prior to the Big Ten Tournament loss to the Hoosiers, Pitts shot 39-of-89 (43.8 percent) from the perimeter in her last nine games.

Bell was named First Team All-Big Ten after the regular season, led the Gophers in scoring at 18.8 points per game and was one of the better defenders in the nation. She was a semifinalist for the National Defensive Player of the Year Award. Bell finished her home career with 23 points in an emotional win over Michigan State that left her fighting tears on the court after.

Pitts had to adjust her game as much as any Gophers player this season. She became a focal point on scouting reports with Carlie Wagner graduated, Gadiva Hubbard out with an injury and others taking the attention last year.

“I thought Destiny put together one of the best second halves of anybody in the conference this year, and she needs to be very proud of that,” Whalen said. “It’s not easy being at the top of a scouting report for the first time in your college career.”

The Gophers will wait for their likely selection to the WNIT, but it’s the last postseason run for seniors Bell, Irene Garrido Perez, Annalese Lamke and Palma Kaposi. They’ll likely return at least three of their five regular starters next season in Pitts, Taiye Bello and Jasmine Brunson.

For Whalen, her first season as a Division I head coach wa all about learning.

“As a coach any time you go through something for the first time, there’s a lot of learning. I feel like I really learned a lot,” Whalen said.