Whalen: Gophers must 'keep at it' despite skid

Lindsay Whalen knows it from her playing days, but she’s finding out quickly as a coach that life in the Big Ten is a grind.

Minnesota is likely to drop out of the top 25 rankings next week after four straight losses, but the Gophers are currently one of six ranked teams in the league. It wasn’t that long ago that the Gophers beat Wisconsin to improve to 13-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten. They’ve dropped four straight games since, including Monday night’s 81-63 loss to Iowa at Williams Arena.

The Gophers had a 40-32 lead at the half, but were out-scored 49-23 in the second half, including 24-9 in the third quarter. Iowa started the second half on an 18-3 run to take control.

“All those details that maybe in the non-conference we could get away with, they get exposed in conference,” Whalen said. “It is what it is. We have to keep raising our level, keep working, getting in the gym and putting in extra time and understand it will pay off.”

After containing the nation’s leading scorer for most of the first half, Megan Gustafson did everything for the Hawkeyes over the final two quarters. She finished with 34 points, shooting 16-of-22 from the field and grabbed 13 rebounds.

She also had four assists and three blocked shots. Whalen is happy Gustafson is a senior, and barring a match-up in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers will only have to play her one more time.

“Her length is tough. She’s a great player, I’m really, really happy that she’s a senior. She’s doing it every week,” Whalen said.

Turnovers have been an issue for the Gophers in their past four losses. They had 14 Monday night, seven of which were in the third quarter after committing just three in the first half. They’ve been averaging 17 per game over the last four losses. They had 21 turnovers in their first Big Ten loss at Michigan.

Defense has also had its issues in the last four games. The Gophers were ranked No. 23 in scoring defense nationally after a 12-0 start. They’ve dropped to No. 79, which is still markedly improved from being No. 335 after last season.

Opponents have scored at least 76 points in three of the Gophers’ last four losses. Both Iowa and Michigan State went over 80.

“We’ve got to stay with our principles and really build this thing on how we want to play. We want to hang our hat on the defensive end of the floor and make sure we’re always giving ourselves a chance,” Whalen said.

Whalen and the Gophers now hit the road for games at Wisconsin Thursday night and Nebraska Sunday afternoon. She’s stressing to keep things simple as they approach practice, and she wants her players to remain confident in what they’re doing despite recent struggles.

The Gophers also need some shots to fall. They finished just 5-of-24 from three-point range against Iowa. They were only 1-of-11 at Michigan State. It was the first time the Gophers’ have faced consecutive teams ranked in the top 25 since 2006.

For the season, they’re shooting 29 percent from the perimeter.

“We just have to keep at it. Don’t get discouraged by the nights where they don’t fall. You keep putting the time in and keep working hard, they’re going to fall,” Whalen said.

As a player, it was easier for Whalen to diagnose issues and get in the gym to work on what she needed to do to get better. It’s a greater challenge as a head coach, between watching film and keeping her players confident. More than anything, she has to become a motivator and convince her players they’re doing what it takes to win.

“We’ve hit a rough patch, but I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing in practice. Everybody is putting a lot more time in before and after practice,” Whalen said. “We told the kids last night just keep working, it’ll pay off at some point. It hurts to lose, but staying confident and staying with it is the big thing for us right now.”