Whalen, Gophers ready for Big Ten Tournament

There’s a quiet confidence brewing at the University of Minnesota as the Gophers women’s basketball team gets ready for the Big Ten Tournament.

In Lindsay Whalen’s first season as a Division I head coach, the Gophers (20-9, 9-9) finished .500 in the Big Ten after getting off to a 2-7 start. They’ve won seven of their past nine games heading into the conference tournament, where anything can and usually does happen.

The No. 7-seeded Gophers face No. 10-seeded Indiana Thursday night. The winner advances to play No. 2-seeded Iowa on Friday.

“It’s the best time of year. This is when players make plays, that’s what it comes down to a lot in these games,” Whalen said. “This is when some of the great players have their stamps on the program.”

The Gophers faced Indiana about a month ago, the only meeting for the two teams this season. Minnesota led Indiana 27-20 at the half and held off the Hoosiers for a 65-61 road victory. It was in the middle of the Gophers’ six-game win streak after a rough start to the conference season.

The Gophers should feel confident about themselves heading into the conference tournament. The season changed when Whalen made an on-court adjustment to go to a smaller lineup, emphasize playing at a faster tempo and getting more active defensively.

Minnesota finished last season ranked in the 300s in scoring defense. Heading to the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers are 65th nationally, allowing 59.4 points per game. They're also No. 19 in the country in rebounding margin, grabbing 7.6 more rebounds per game more on average than their opponents.

“Anything can happen, it’s that time of the year. We’re going into March and I think we finished the Big Ten off well. We can compete with any team in the Big Ten, so I like our chances in the tournament,” sophomore Destiny Pitts said. “I think we can come back and do something special.”

Pitts has been one of the biggest reasons the Gophers got back to .500 in Big Ten play after a slow start. Her shots weren’t falling, but it didn’t stop her from shooting.

She’s scored in double figures in 12 straight games, including six straight games with at least 20 points. In Minnesota’s last nine games, a 7-2 stretch, she’s averaging 21.5 points per game. Pitts is also shooting 46.7 percent from the field in the last nine games, including 42 percent from the perimeter.

She was named to the Big Ten honor roll on Monday, and earned All-Big Ten honors.

“I feel like the second half of the Big Ten season she’s been one of the best players in the conference. That’s where Destiny is at right now, she’s one of the best players in the conference,” Whalen said.

It also helps the Gophers’ cause that their leading scorer, Kenisha Bell, is one of the best defensive players in the country. She leads Minnesota with 18.9 points per game, and is one of the top defenders in the Big Ten with 59 steals.

Bell is a semifinalist for the National Defensive Player of the Year Award.

The Gophers have had success in Whalen’s first season, but the reality is they need to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament if they have aspirations of playing in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve gotten to 20 wins for the fifth time in six seasons, but are hurt with a No. 96 RPI and a weaker strength of schedule.

Whalen said after a 2-7 start in the Big Ten, getting to 20 wins this season and finishing in the top half of the league was a big accomplishment for her club.

“That’s your first step towards getting a really good to a great season, 20 wins is always your goal every year,” Whalen said. “When we were 2-7 in the conference it wasn’t looking great for that, but give the credit to the players. They’ve really worked hard and stuck with it.”

That’s why it’s March Madness. Anything can happen when only one of 14 conference teams gets the automatic NCAA bid by winning the league tournament.

“We have a special group of people that wants to win and wants to do our best. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get there,” Bell said.

It starts with Indiana on Thursday.