By Charles Hallman
The Minnesota women’s basketball team accomplished something that the other 11 Big Ten teams failed to do — win its final game of the season.
Minnesota’s first victory of the 2011-12 season came last November in the WBI (Women’s Basketball Invitational) Tip-off Classic. The squad’s season-ending win last Sunday was a 88-74 win over Northern Iowa for the WBI championship at Williams Arena.
The Gophers, finishing 19-17, was the first Big Ten team to play in the three-year WBI post-season tournament.
“For us to end the way we have — 7-3 in our last 10 games — shows some of our positives and also some of the things we really have to get better on for next year,” admits U of M Coach Pam Borton after Sunday’s win.
Both she and Northern Iowa’s Tanya Warren quickly point out that the WBI, a 16-team tournament, isn’t the larger and more preferred NCAA, or even the WNIT.
“Yes, the NCAA [tournament] is everybody’s aspiration, but anytime you can play in the post season is an honor,” says Warren.
“There is nothing like playing in the NCAA tournament,” adds Borton, “[but] this tournament allows us to play four more games.”
It was Minnesota’s first extended March play since 2009, when they reached the NCAA second round. Ironically, that was the last time senior Kiara Buford was a post-season participant as well as the last time the team posted a winning record.
“We won 20 games her freshman year,” recalls the Gopher coach.
The St. Paul native on Sunday concluded her four-year Minnesota career on a winning note, however. “With all the work we’ve put in, it was good to end this way,” said Buford after Sunday’s win, the Gophers’ fourth consecutive victory — a season-high. She averaged 13 points in four WBI games and was named tourney MVP.
Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rachel Banham led U of M with a title-game-high 26 points. The guard averaged 15.2 ppg in the tourney, and sophomore center-forward Micaella Riche added 12 points a game. She averaged nine points in the team’s last 10 games.
Riche “has gotten better, better and better,” says Borton.
It’s sad that the hoops snobs can’t or won’t see that even though the games weren’t televised or broadcast and didn’t attract even a fifth-level mainstream stringer assigned to cover them, each team Minnesota faced had a winning record while the Gophers hosts came into the WBI under-.500.
Furthermore, the players didn’t play like it was some dress rehearsal scrimmage or glorified exhibition. Instead, Minnesota snapped a three-year sub-winning streak.
“We need to learn how to win,” Borton told me after Sunday’s poorly attended press conference. “We’ve got three classes of kids who haven’t played in a post-season tournament. I think we ended the season probably playing our best basketball in the Big Ten tournament (going 1-1). Our kids needed to continue to play.”
More importantly, a player’s dream — to win their last game of the season — was accomplished on Sunday. For the team’s four seniors — Buford, Brianna Mastey, Nicole Mastey and Jackie Voigt — they conclude their collegiate playing careers with forever-lasting fond memories.
“It was good for our seniors,” affirms Banham, one of 10 returning players for next season.
Although the returnees can use their season ending on a winning note to build upon as they embark on their off-season workouts during the summer, winning a virtually ignored post-season tournament should be a self-motivator for something better.
“They needed to get a taste of what it’s like to play this long. They need to understand that’s an expectation for our program,” concludes Borton. “I think the message was sent.”
The U of M men’s hockey team last weekend won the NCAA West Regional in St. Paul to advance to this year’s Frozen Four (April 5 in Tampa, Florida) for the first time since 2005.
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