Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gopher posts lay victory foundation


University of Minnesota head coach Pam Borton said the biggest challenge leading her Gophers so far this season is the lack of team chemistry. The players get along splendidly, but she noted injuries that forced her marquee players to sit out a few games prevented her from seeing Minnesota's abilities at full strength.

Borton faced that scenario again Wednesday night against Northern Arizona at Williams Arena, as Jackie Voigt sat with a twisted ankle. Borton went with two posts in her starting five, and they delivered under the circumstances. Sophomore forward Katie Loberg removed any questions about her previous injuries with a career-high 20 points, and senior center Kristen Dockery got her first career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds as Minnesota defeated Northern Arizona 82-74.

"When you have two bigs in there, it puts a height disadvantage for the other team," Loberg said.

"My teammates got me the ball and put me in position to score, and rebounding is something that I need to do for this team, so I focused on that," Dockery said.

Once again, the Gophers showcased their ad-libbing skills, which could give Borton a plethora of combinations at her disposal when Big Ten Conference play starts next Thursday against Illinois.

"We had one day to prepare for this," Borton said. "It's the first time that Loberg's played on the wing in our zone. Things didn't look perfect out there, but I like the option."

Minnesota's (8-5, 0-0) offense helped disguise the team's 22 turnovers, which were caused by Northern Arizona's (4-8, 0-0) strategy of combating size with athleticism. Minnesota answered by making 53.8% of their field goals and out-rebounding Northern Arizona 42-31. Four Gophers finished in double-figures.

However, their offensive production was not enough to pull away from the Lumberjacks, who fought off every Gophers run. Northern Arizona guard Amy Patton scored a game-high 23 points, including a three-pointer with 2:55 left in the second half that left Minnesota with a thin 70-68 lead. Kiara Buford responded with a three-point play, capping off a 16-point night, and the Lumberjacks would not get within one possession again.

The dagger was delayed though, not coming until there was 17 seconds left. Minnesota led 78-74 but was under pressure from Northern Arizona's full-court defense. Brianna Mastey found a wide-open Loberg down court on an inbounds play. Loberg would score a three-point play after drawing a foul.

"They were really pressuring everybody and I just slipped through off a screen. Kind of like a pick and roll," she said.

"Most of those kids playing a lot of minutes for us are freshmen and sophomores. They just don't know everything yet," said Northern Arizona head coach Laurie Kelly, whose ties to Minnesota include a standout career playing for the University of St. Thomas during the early 1990s.

"They're late on a rotation or not sure where to go. We gave up a lot of lay-ups," she said.

Minnesota goes on Christmas break with a nearly identical mark in non-conference play compared to last season, when they started 8-4. While the stat sheet may not look impressive to fans looking for a rebound from a rough 2009-10 campaign, Borton said getting a healthy team will allow her Gophers to grow in ways unavailable to them with a senior-heavy team.

"You see about 30 percent of what this team can actually do, but we're still finding a way to win," she said.

The win was Borton's 173rd in her coaching career at Minnesota, giving her the record for most career victories with the program. The previous mark was 172, set by Ellen Mosher-Hanson from 1977-87. Although Borton's accomplishment was recognized following the game, her post-game speech was centered on preparing for the Big Ten schedule.

"When the season's over, I'll have a chance to enjoy it," she said. "It's probably the furthest thing from my mind."

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