MINNEAPOLIS – If the Minnesota women's basketball team is going to make noise in the Big Ten and return to the NCAA tournament after two years away, the Gophers are going to have to get off to better starts. Particularly against talented teams.
Three days after digging a big hole in a loss at Wake Forest, the Gophers (4-5) did it again Sunday against No. 1 Baylor. By the time Minnesota made its first field goal, the Lady Bears (8-0) held a double-digit lead. From there, the Gophers were never really able to push for an upset and lost to Baylor, 89-60.
"We have to start off a little better offensively, make some more baskets to get ourselves into a rhythm at the start of the game," Minnesota coach Pam Borton said. "Same thing happened at Wake Forest. We got off to a slow start."
Despite the loss, Minnesota's third in the past four games, the Gophers hope the experience of playing against one of the nation's elite teams will be beneficial as the season goes along.
Freshman point guard Rachel Banham certainly learned as the game went along. After a first half that saw the Gophers fall farther and farther behind, Banham led the Gophers offensively in the second half as Minnesota matched the Lady Bears nearly point for point. Banham finished with 19 points to lead the Gophers. Leah Cotton added 14 and Kiara Buford scored 13 for the Gophers.
"Coach said to me at second half that I needed to start making plays and to start playing like I am one of the best players out there," Banham said. "This helped me become more confident and I started hitting my shots.
"It showed a lot of what our team needs to work on. But overall its going to help us get to where we need to be."
The Gophers did a solid defensive job on Brittney Griner, Baylor's 6-8 junior center. While Griner finished with 20 points, Minnesota's double- and triple-teams meant that the preseason All-America selection didn't reach her scoring average.
The problem for the Gophers was that Baylor proved it is more than a one-woman team.
Griner, who also grabbed nine rebounds against the Gophers, was very patient, she kept the ball above her head and delivered accurate passes out of double-team situations. Griner finished with a season-high three assists and didn't turn the ball over in 35 minutes of action.
Baylor's Odyssey Sims, who finished with 15 points and nine assists, was frequently on the receiving end of Griner's passes. Griner found Sims alone in the left corner for wide open 3-pointers on two occasions during a 17-2 Baylor run to close the first half and give Baylor a 48-21 lead at the break.
"That's what we work on in practice, double team, triple team," Sims said. "It opens opportunities up for the other four people on the floor. You've got the backdoor cut, relocating, somebody coming down the middle. It helps us and it helps her too. She can score with two, three people on her, but she can also dish it and open opportunities for the rest of us."
That's exactly what Baylor coach Kim Mulkey wants
"Brittney is more mature, stronger, she understands the game and the offense we're trying to run," Mulkey said. "Everything we do runs through Griner. She can make everyone look good. But, at the same time, we have some pretty good players around her. We'll keep getting better."
Those other players are part of what makes Baylor so good.
"You're constantly making adjustments," Borton said. "You plug a hole and another one pops open, you plug that one and another one pops open. That's why they're No. 1 in the nation."
Any hopes Minnesota had of upsetting the Lady Bears were extinguished early. The Gophers missed their first 12 shots and trailed 11-1 before Banham made Minnesota's first field goal nearly six minutes into the game.
After Baylor stretched its lead to 20 points midway though the first half, Minnesota did close within 11, 31-19, when Buford intercepted a pass and went in for a layup.
The Lady Bears, however, wouldn't allow another Minnesota field goal before halftime.
While the victory seemed easy for Baylor, Mulkey wasn't happy with her team's complacency after building the big lead.
"I don't want to sound like I'm not appreciative of the 29, 30-point victory, I am," Mulkey said.
"We didn't extend (the lead) really. ... I just didn't see the same focus that we're going to have to have if we're going to continue to aspire to win a national championship."
That is goal for Baylor this season after falling to Texas A&M in last season's regional finals.
"We're trying to do what UConn and Tennessee and those guys have done," Mulkey said.
And the Gophers hope to learn from the Lady Bears.