Without a game since Jan. 21, Minnesota had a week to prepare for its game against No. 13 Michigan on Sunday at Williams Arena. Whatever the Gophers had planned for the first of four games against ranked Big Ten rivals, it never got off the ground.
The Wolverines established their bona fides early, pushing the ball into the paint and making a meal of the Gophers’ interior defense to set the tone for a 77-41 victory.
Laila Phelia and Leigha Brown scored 22 and 20 points, respectively, for a Michigan team that did everything better than the Gophers on Saturday. The Wolverines finished with healthy advantages on the boards (45-37), from the field (44 percent to 31 percent) and turnovers (eight to Minnesota’s 21).
The Wolverines outscored Minnesota in the paint, 46-26, and off turnovers, 21-5. The Gophers (9-12 overall, 2-8 Big Ten) led only once, 2-0, on a layup by Rose Micheaux in the game’s first 16 seconds.
“Give them credit for being the team they are,” Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen told KFAN+ after the game.
Michaeux led the Gophers with 15 points and eight rebounds but had a game-high seven turnovers. Amaya Battle added 10 points and five boards after missing her first five shots from the field.
It wasn’t difficult to diagnose the Gophers’ issues. They entered the game 12th in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (41 percent) and 13th in 3-point percentage, so the Wolverines crowded the paint and, with the exception of Mara Braun, let Minnesota shoot long jump shots.
It was an effective strategy. Micheaux made 7 of 14 shots from the field, and Mallory Heyer made 3 of 6 despite being at least double-teamed whenever they got the ball in the blocks. But the rest of the Gophers made a combined 8 of 39 shots (20 percent).
Behind Brown’s nine points, the Wolverines (17-5, 7-4) built a 15-9 first-quarter lead that included eight points off Minnesota turnovers. The Gophers never pulled even again but were able to stay within arm’s length until early in the third quarter, when Michigan used a 17-0 run that included the Wolverines’ first two made 3-pointers to go up 55-28. That lead ballooned to 61-30 with 56 seconds left in the frame.
“I thought defensively we were really good in the first half,” Whalen told KFAN+. “In the second half we strayed a little bit from some of the things we were doing in the first.”
Minnesota scored only 11 points in the fourth quarter, going scoreless for the last 4:50 of the game.
The Gophers have lost seven of their past eight games, and their 2-8 start in conference play is the worst in Whalen’s four-plus seasons coaching her alma mater. But the Gophers lost three starters to the transfer portal after last season and started this season with nine new players — and lost two to leg injuries during summer practices.
Whalen, however, refuses to use excuses.
“You’ve got to make your own breaks in this game,” she told KFAN+. “We just have to come back and keep fighting.”
It won’t get easier anytime soon. On Wednesday, the Gophers are host to sixth-ranked Indiana, a team that includes senior Sara Scalia, who was the Gophers’ leading scorer last season before entering the transfer portal.
After that, Minnesota plays No. 22 Illinois in Champaign on Sunday, then goes to Columbus for a Feb. 8 game against No. 2 Ohio State.