The University of Minnesota Gopher women's basketball team had one recurring theme throughout their season opener against Northern Illinois Saturday: rebounding from a 13-17 showing last year, where they finished last in the Big Ten Conference and dealt with a late-season schism questioning the heart of the senior class.
Fittingly, the Gophers capitalized on the boards, outrebounding the Huskies 41-21 en route to a 79-58 win at Williams Arena. The win, one of two semifinal games in the Best Buy Classic to open the season, will pit Minnesota against Wisconsin-Green Bay at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Williams Arena.
While the struggles of last season are well-documented by fans and reporters, the Gophers hope win number one sends a message that a new chapter has started.
"There's a lot of energy, a lot of passion. You could see it on the court," said junior guard Kiara Buford, named a team captain before the season.
Junior forward Jackie Voigt did most of the work on the glass, scooping 14 rebounds for Minnesota. Buford scored a game-high 22 points while sophomore center Katie Loberg added 15, a result of Minnesota's brilliance hitting shots inside and out. The Gophers made 60% of their shots for the game, a number rarely seen from Minnesota over the last few years.
"Points in the paint have gone up drastically from last year. That's why I think our shooting percentage is a lot better," Buford said.
"Our focus is to be a better half-court team. Jackie did an outstanding job with the boards," said head coach Pam Borton, who started her 9th season in Minnesota.
The Gophers needed almost a full half to get accustomed to their off-season adjustments. The Huskies used a 9-0 run to trim an 11-point deficit to 2 with 1:45 remaining in the first half before the Gophers responded with a 10-0 run to end the half, highlighted by a four-point play when sophomore guard Leah Cotton drained a three-pointer after Buford missed the back end of her free throws.
While offense and rebounding stepped up, turnovers kept the Gophers from utterly blowing out Northern Illinois, coughing the ball up 26 times to the Huskies' 14.
"We had some self-inflicted wounds: poor passing, three seconds in the lane. We've got to clean that up," Borton said.
Loberg and Buford believe cleanup will be short.
"First-game jitters, very fixable stuff," Loberg said.
Most of the pre-season attention has gone to the captains, but several freshman recruits played their first minutes of collegiate action. Minnesota native Sari Noga and Canadian Micaëlla Riché both scored five points in about 10 minutes of action.
Borton said she eventually plans to trim her rotation to nine players as she seeks cohesion with a younger team, but the players promoted their newfound depth that was also absent in the last few seasons.
"Last year, we struggled with off-the-bench production. People underestimate how important your bench is. We can go deep and we're trying to utilize that," Buford said.
Northern Illinois forward Courtney Shelton led the Huskies with 16 points. The Huskies will face George Washington University in the third-place game Sunday at 1:00 p.m. at Williams Arena.