Whalen, Gophers riding 4-game win streak

Lindsay Whalen remembers the moment that helped spark the Gophers’ women’s basketball team’s most recent win streak.

Minnesota had already beaten Northwestern to snap a three-game win streak. But the Gophers were facing Rutgers, one of the top teams in the Big Ten and a top-25 squad. They were trailing the Scarlet Knights late in the first half, and at least two Gopher players got on the floor for a loose ball.

Rutgers got the possession and even had a 23-17 lead at the half, but the message had been sent. The Gophers weren’t going to be out-hustled. The Gophers went onto out-score Rutgers 22-10 in the third quarter and pulled away for a big 60-46 victory.

It was the second of four straight wins for the Gophers, who are now 16-7 overall and 6-7 in Big Ten play with five regular season games left. That win came after Minnesota shot 4-of-23 from the field, 0-of-5 from three-point range and had nine turnovers in a four-minute stretch. Yet they only trailed by six at the half.

“It all started on that loose ball. Getting on the floor, it’s your home court, we wanted it more,” Whalen said. “Ever since that point in that game, we kind of took over and ended up getting the win. It just took a little bit of everybody in that game to play great and come back in the second half.”

Minnesota is right in the thick of the Big Ten race with five games left, thanks to its most recent win streak. The Gophers are looking to get their fifth straight win at Purdue Thursday night, and avenge a 63-54 loss to the Boilermakers at Williams Arena in a game where they shot 31 percent from the field.

The Gophers are in a four-way tie for eighth in the Big Ten, but are just two games in the loss column behind Michigan State for fourth. Purdue is one of the teams the Gophers are looking up at in the league standings, but can jump them with a win Thursday.

Whalen admitted she needed to make adjustments during the Gophers’ Big Ten skid. They had lost three straight and seven of eight before beating Northwestern to start their current four-game win streak.

Opposing teams were playing zone defense against the Gophers, so she opted for a smaller lineup to put more shooters on the court and space the floor. They’ve also shortened their bench.

In last Sunday’s overtime win over Northwestern, Kenisha Bell and Destiny Pitts combined for 45 of Minnesota’s 73 points. They shot a combined 16-of-37 from the field, including 5-of-13 from three-point range. Jasmine Brunson played all 45 minutes and scored 14 points.

Against Northwestern, all five starters played at least 38 minutes. Taiye Bello played 44 minutes, along with Brunson and Pitts playing 45.

“I tell these guys, the more desperate team in a night wins. So far we’ve been really clawing and fighting,” Whalen said.

It wasn’t that long ago the Gophers were struggling to hit shots and mired in a losing streak. They were doubting themselves, and wondering if their hard work both at and outside of practice would pay off.

What a difference a few weeks makes with four straight wins.

“The run we’ve been on, I think it just shows our character as a team and just how close we came when we were going through those losses,” Pitts said. “How close we came together, and it’s just really exciting to see all the hard work we’ve put in is really paying off.”

Over her last six games, Pitts is averaging 18.1 points per game and shooting 43.4 percent from the perimeter. She’s also being asked to carry a defensive load at multiple positions for the Gophers.

“We’ve asked her to play about 17 different positions on the court, she’s been great,” Whalen said.

Pitts’ confidence in her shooting never wavered, even when it wasn’t going in consistently. During Minnesota’s four-game losing streak, she shot 15-of-50 from the field.

She’s been a shooter most of her basketball life, so a tough stretch wasn’t about to phase her.

“The confidence comes from repetition. Just going out and shooting with my teammates all the time, especially outside of practice,” Pitts said. “I know how much I shoot the ball outside of when we play, so that’s where it comes from.”

The Gophers like where they’re at with five games left, but there’s still plenty of work to do. Their ultimate goal is to compete for a championship at the Big Ten Tournament, and get to the NCAA Tournament.

The final stretch starts at Purdue Thursday. The Gophers also host Penn State on Sunday, then end with three games against ranked teams at Maryland, at Rutgers and the home finale against Michigan State.

Whalen’s focus is solely on Thursday night at Purdue.

“They’re all important because we can win them all. Doesn’t matter, ranked or not ranked. The teams are so close in the Big Ten, every game, every night, that’s the most important game of the season,” Whalen said. “They’re all winnable, they’re all losable. So if you don’t come ready, no matter what, no matter where it is, home or away, ranked or not ranked, that doesn’t matter. That stuff is all out the window now. There’s five games left, the biggest thing is preaching the details and staying true to who we are.”