Minnesota reaching new heights despite loss of leader Rachel Banham

Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images
Zahui B. is averaging 15.9 ppg this season.

A prominent objective for the Minnesota women’s basketball team heading into this season was to crack The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2006. It seemed like an attainable goal, even though the Gophers hadn’t been nationally ranked in nearly 10 years.

Then Rachel Banham tore her ACL, and it appeared, at least briefly, that all hope was lost. Banham was the preseason Big Ten Conference player of the year and all-important to the Gophers.

“We were really scared at first,” freshman guard Carlie Wagner said. “It’s a really big deal when our best player, our scorer, our team leader goes down. We realized that we all had to step up.

“There are some teams that decide to fall apart when something like that happens, and we decided to come together.”

That mentality has translated to success. The Gophers haven’t lost since Banham went down. They upset then-No. 12 Nebraska in dramatic, comeback fashion last week, then went on to upend Purdue and Wisconsin.

As a result, Minnesota (14-1, 3-0 Big Ten) can cross “crack the top 25” off its list of goals. The Gophers are ranked No. 23 this week.

“We wanted to be in the top 25. Now, we want to go higher,” said sophomore center Amanda Zahui B.

Zahui B. shares the team lead in scoring with Shae Kelly (15.9 points per game) and leads the team in rebounding (11.5). They are helping take up the slack for Banham, who was averaging 18.6 points before her Dec. 10 injury.

“They’re all inspired and motivated because of [Banham’s] absence, and they’re playing extremely well,” coach Marlene Stollings said.

“We’re proud of them. They’re very deserving of this. They’ve earned this.”

We were really scared at first. It’s a really big deal when our best player, our scorer, our team leader goes down. We realized that we all had to step up.
— Carlie Wagner, Minnesota guard

The Gophers’ success is largely a result of hard work in the offseason.

Stollings was hired in April and immediately made it clear that she planned to play a fast-paced style. That placed a premium on building endurance.

“We really rocked the world of some of our players,” Stollings said of the offseason regimen. “It was so drastically different to what they were accustomed to. … So for them to see success early in the season has been very rewarding for them.”

“It’s just amazing,” said Wagner, who was 10 the last time the program was nationally ranked. “It’s showing that all our hard work is paying off.”

Stollings made it clear that the Gophers still have plenty to do.

“We want them to stay humble and focused on what got us to where we are right now,” she said. “We’ve gotten here with hard work and discipline and staying very focused to the game plan, and we want to continue that.”