There were a lot of disappointed Gophers basketball fans when Sara Scalia announced last March she had entered the NCAA transfer portal.
The fourth-year guard from Stillwater was Minnesota’s leading scorer a year ago, averaging 18 points a game, second-team All-Big Ten and ranked third nationally in 3-pointers made with 111 while shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc. It was the toughest setback for a team that lost six players to the transfer portal, including three starters, and five to graduation.
It was easy to see Scalia playing alongside a Top 10, four-player recruiting class and burgeoning star Rose Micheaux to make the Gophers better in 2022-23. But after three losing seasons as a Gopher, Scalia didn’t. She entered the portal and less than two weeks later committed to the Gophers’ Big Ten rival Indiana.
“I think a few things went into it, especially as far as Minnesota,” Scalia said last week. “We had a lot of players either graduating or transferring; that was a big factor. The next year would have been, just, an awful lot of new players, and I guess I didn’t know if I was confident enough that we were going to win how I’d want to — especially in the Big Ten, which is the best conference in the country.”
Nine months later, it’s difficult to question Scalia’s decision.
After three years at Minnesota without sniffing an NCAA tournament bid, Scalia is playing a key role for an Indiana team that comes to Williams Arena on Wednesday with a 20-1 record and the No. 4 ranking in this week’s Associated Press poll.
Tip off is set for 7 p.m.
“I feel like I’ll get a big cheer, but I really don’t know what’s going to happen, I guess,” she said.
Scalia is averaging 9.0 points and 3.4 rebounds for Indiana, substantially below last season’s scoring punch but a key component for a team that has set the program record for best start to a season and has seven victories over ranked opponents, including No. 8 Maryland, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 11 North Carolina and No. 18 Michigan.
“These big games,” Scalia said, “are really fun to play in.”
The Gophers, meanwhile, are struggling, 9-12 overall after a 77-41 loss to Michigan on Sunday that marked the program’s lowest scoring output since 2010.
There have been impressive performances from freshmen Mara Braun, Mallory Heyer and Amaya Battle, and center Rose Micheaux might be the most improved player in the Big Ten, averaging 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a game as a sophomore. Coach Lindsay Whalen’s program appears to have bright days ahead, but starting a combination of freshmen and sophomores after welcoming nine new players, the Gophers are 2-8 in conference play.
Minnesota hasn’t had a winning season since the Gophers went 21-11 in 2018-19, before Scalia arrived. Last year’s team lost 10 of its last 16 games and finished 15-18 overall, 7-11 in conference play.
“It was hard losing,” Scalia said, “especially after giving everything you know you had.”
There’s little doubt Minnesota would be better this season with Scalia, but it’s also clear that Scalia — who has one more season of eligibility after this one — is achieving goals she might not ever have enjoyed had she stayed. She slotted into a team already expected to contend for a Big Ten title — the Hoosiers were 24-9 with a Sweet 16 appearance last season — and has made it better.
Expected to score big last season, Scalia now has four teammates averaging at least 12 points, led by forward Mackenzie Holmes’ 22.0 a game.
“Honestly, it’s a good feeling to know that even if it wasn’t the best shooting night that as long as I was doing what I’m supposed to do defensively and everything else, we’re still winning,” Scalia said. “It’s just as good a feeling as if I scored 20 and we won. Ultimately, I just want to win.”
Scalia, in fact, has been in something of a scoring slump. She was averaging 13.1 points a game, and shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc, after hitting four 3-pointers in an 87-63 rout of then-No. 6 North Carolina on Dec. 1. Over the next 10 games, she made only 22 of 80 shots from the field (27 percent) until she made 7 of 10 for a season-high 19 points in a 92-83 victory Jan. 23 at Michigan.
After that game, coach Teri Moren remarked, “We need Sara back.”
Asked what she took from her coach’s comment, Scalia said, “Ultimately, they need me to play my role — do what I do best here. I think that’s the biggest thing, hitting shots and helping out the team, and following what we do defensively is a big thing, too. Just the main thing is locking in and hitting the shots I get.”
“But my teammates and coaches all trust the work I’ve put into my shot,” she added, “so I’m just going to continue to play my game and I feel like it will come.”
Wednesday will mark Scalia’s only regular-season game against the Gophers this season, although it’s possible the teams meet again in the Big Ten conference tournament March 1-5 at Target Center. At that point, Indiana could be playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It definitely hits me here and there, for sure, that I’m part of a team like this,” Scalia said. “We’re continuing to break records at Indiana, it’s crazy, and I’m just excited about the future and what it has coming the rest of the season.”