Jason’s Blog: The New Gophers
The bandwagon has plenty of room and if you're not on it yet, consider this a formal invitation.
The Minnesota Gophers women's basketball team improved to 21-6 (10-5 Big Ten) on Tuesday with an impressive 93-80 win over No. 11 Iowa at Williams Arena. Amanda Zahui B., a sophomore center from Sweden, was basketball's version of "Beast Mode," scoring 39 points and pulling down 29 rebounds in the game.
Meanwhile, New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva standout Carlie Wagner made her first three 3-pointers of the night in the game's opening minutes and finished with 17 points for the third straight game. Iowa relied on outside jump shooting all night, and once the shots finally stopped going in, the Gophers rebounded and Zahui B.'d their way to victory in a game that puts them on the verge of re-entering the Top 25.
The game was on national TV, but in case you missed it, my question to you is simple: Where have you been?
We're all biased because Wagner is a local star, but the truth is the Gopher women are the best show in Minnesota right now. That includes the Wild, who are struggling to make the top eight in a 14-team NHL Western Conference a year after they reached the conference finals. The Gopher men's basketball team appears NIT bound again, barring a miracle finish to their Big Ten season, which includes a three-game gauntlet starting on Saturday where they play No. 5 Wisconsin twice, with a date with Michigan State at the Breslin Center sandwiched between them.
The women, on the other hand, appear destined to not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but given the crowds they draw (Wednesday's attendance was a respectable 3,265), they have a good chance to host some NCAA games.
This is not intended to put the men's team down, but the women were in the same position a couple of weeks ago that we've seen the men in for the last several seasons -- a promising start to the year was quickly going south after losing four of five Big Ten games. Unlike the men, who continued their downward spiral -- one that ultimately got Tubby Smith a pink slip -- the women have bounced back down the stretch, winning four straight.
The Gopher women could easily have descended to a .500 or below conference record and another WNIT berth, and would have had the built-in excuse of Rachel Banham's absence for the entire conference season. Zahui B., Wagner and a rejuvenated Shayne Mullaney would have none of it, though. We have never seen anything quite like Zahui B. in a Gopher women's uniform -- she has such soft hands, commands the lane and can even shoot the three. I think Janel McCarville would even concede that Zahui B.'s game is on a different level.
They are winning and they are fun to watch. First-year coach Marlene Stollings has turned the program around in short order, and is doing so without the franchise player.
The Gophers host Michigan this weekend in their final regular-season home game before they have a tough two-game road stretch against Nebraska and Iowa. Then the Big Ten tournament takes them to suburban Chicago. It will be fun to see how they finish this thing off and how good of a seed they can get for the NCAAs.
Don't be afraid to jump on board -- you can tell your friends you're watching Carlie play, but in the end, trust me, you'll be a fan of the whole team.
Jason Iacovino can be heard Tuesdays and Fridays on KRFO-AM 1390 and the RadioPup app at 3:50 p.m. Leave a comment below and follow him on Twitter @JasonIacovino.