Monday night’s game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Illinois Fighting Illini was a microcosm of Minnesota’s fate in the last two seasons.
Sophomore guard Rachel Banham escaped her recent shooting rut to score 37 points, becoming the 21st player in Minnesota history to cross 1,000, but not enough support elsewhere meant the milestone was overshadowed. Illinois withstood a late Minnesota rally for a 91-86 win at Williams Arena.
“Banham was unbelievable. Got them back in and gave them a chance to win it, but we made enough plays down the stretch,” said Illinois head coach Matt Bollant.
Illinois (11-8, 4-3) successfully executed their 2-1-2 defense, called “the buzz” by Bollant, after going down 82-81 on a Banham jumper with 4:10 remaining in regulation.
“Let’s trap her and try to keep her from getting touches. Make someone else have to beat us, and that gave us a lift.” Bollant said about his strategy.
Banham would not score for the remainder of the game, immediately drawing double teams, while the Illini pinned the rest of her group in the backcourt on several possessions. Illinois eventually reclaimed the lead for good, but not without late-game drama; Trailing 89-86, Minnesota (13-8, 2-5) had three chances to score in the final 21 seconds, but no attempt came close to the basket. Alexis Smith would ice the game with a pair of free throws.
“I went up like I usually would and it just happened to break,” said Minnesota forward Micaella Riche. “There are games like that.”
Riche earned a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, but made only three of 10 field goal attempts. Junior guard Leah Cotton finished with nine assists.
Banham scored 27 points in the second half to fuel the rally, and said it was cool to have four digits next to her name, but her focus in the post-game press conference was looking to end Minnesota’s four-game losing streak.
“I have to keep getting better and the rest of us have to keep getting better,” she said.
The Illini had four players enter double-digits in scoring. Highlighting the group was senior forward Karisma Penn, who maintained her double-double average with 21 points and 12 rebounds with Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve in attendance.
“She definitely deserves to be drafted in the first round,” Bollant said. “She’s had to do more than most kids should. She contested shots, got to the rim, showed she could step out and shoot.”
Senior guard Adrienne GodBold also posted a double-double, getting 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.
Minnesota’s next game is Thursday, when they host Michigan.