Eugene – Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings’ began the press conference after her team’s 89-77 NCAA Tournament upset win over Green Bay with some humor.
“You’ll notice my voice is a little raspy,” she said with a smile. “There’s a reason.”
For the fourth-year coach leading the Gophers into their inaugural Tournament appearance, it was called halftime.
Seeded tenth in the Spokane regional, they trailed the No. 7 Phoenix at the break, 42-32. Stollings’ message in the locker room was succinct: “Disrupt.” And she had a different message for her squad, renowned for its defense, which was to “control the controllables” and amp up their defense and rebounding.
They took the message to heart.
Minnesota totaled 19 rebounds and six steals in the second half, compared to 12 rebounds and two steals for the Phoenix. This defensive intensity fueled necessary offensive conversions and completions.
Junior Kenisha Bell, after scoring only two points in the first half, put up 24 more in the final two frames. Freshman Destiny Pitts had 20 points, Gadiva Hubbard 16 and Carlie Wagner 15 for the Gophers.
While Minnesota presented a team of NCAA tournament rookies fielding only two players with previous experience in Wagner and Bryanna Fernstrom, it was Green Bay’s ninth appearance in the past 10 years,
The matchup was destined to be intense, as it pitted the Phoenix’s No. 1-ranked defense against Minnesota’s No. 3 ranked offense. The first quarter was a rocky one for both teams, with three lead changes and two ties.
The Gophers crawled back in the third, and in the fourth quarter Green Bay’s defense lapsed, and they committed 10 fouls. Minnesota capitalized on every one, going 15-16 from the charity stripe. Fourteen of Bell’s points were from the line, including 11 in the fourth quarter.
Allie LeClaire led Green Bay with 17 points, and Jessica Lindstrom added 11.
Bell said her coaches knew how to push her buttons at halftime.
“They try to make me mad on purpose,” she said. “They start talking trash.”
It worked, and the Gophers outscored their opponents, 30-13 in the final quarter.
Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth said fatigue caused his team to make errors down the stretch.
“Either we got tired, or we got caught up in some bad situations,” Borseth said of their fouls. “I don’t know if they were a result of our turnovers or just getting caught up in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”
LeClaire said the team might have been looking ahead.
“I think we thought we had it this year and we didn’t,” she said. “It’s sad going out like this, but we (fellow senior Lindstrom and herself) had a great four years.”
Borseth credited both teams.
“I think Minnesota played a good game, I think they had to,” he said. “We gave them everything we had. Our kids, they competed.”
The Gophers will play No. 2 seed Oregon at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16.