Friday, February 29, 2008

One more to go

It seems only fitting that the final regular season week of the Big Ten women's basketball campaign would get to this -- six teams still in contention for the title, a conference race closer than ever before this late in the year.

Ohio State was sitting atop at the start of the week, then lost a later-learned controversial overtime game to Indiana. The Buckeyes, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan all have two games this week -- Purdue only has one, when they play Illinois on Sunday.

The Gophers, now 10-7 after defeating visiting Indiana 69-54 Thursday, had to win both their games because they isn't in the best standing as far as Big Ten tournament tie-breakers are concerned.

"We sat down with the team (earlier this week and told them), this is where we are and what we have to do," notes Minnesota Coach Pam Borton. "Our destiny is in our hands."

Borton's players took her advice to heart. Emily Fox's jumper with 12:15 remaining in the first half, broke a 12-12 tie and began a 6-0 run to take the lead for good. A later 11-0 run, which featured six points from reserve center Zoe Harper, gave the Gophers some breathing room heading into halftime. Their 39-23 halftime lead was U-M's largest advantage over an opponent this season.

"Zoey stepped up and played a big role tonight," Minnesota senior forward Leslie Knight says of the sophomore Harper's first half performance.

"That was key for us," Borton says. "(It) gave everyone a lot of confidence."

After their big win Monday, the Hoosiers (16-13, 9-8) couldn't buy a vowel, let alone a basket. Indiana went dry from the field for the last seven minutes of the first half, and almost five minutes after intermission, scoring only four points from the free throw line. The Gophers held Indiana to 15 of 51 shooting (just over 29 percent), a season-low for an opponent this season.

"They had a great defense," admits Indiana Coach Felisha Legette-Jack, "but our kids didn't shoot the ball well either."

Minnesota wanted to stop IU from getting into the paint, Borton points out. At the beginning of the contest, the Hoosiers were doing just that. But then the Gophers switched defenses and those same shots soon dried up.

"Their guards are very tough off the dribble," explains the Gopher coach. "Our plan was to give them one shot and shut down the lane. We did a great job in our 2-3 zone."

The junior Fox led Minnesota with 20 points, her 26th double figure effort this season -- she also done this in all U-M's 15 home games. Knight added 19. Jamie Braun paced Indiana with 16 points, and Kim Roberson had 10. These were the only players on either team that reached double figures.

The win Thursday was Borton's 200th career victory. More importantly, it puts the Gophers in sole possession of fourth place, breaking out of a three-way tie with Indiana and Michigan, who also lost that night -- a 69-67 defeat at Wisconsin. If they stay in their current position, Minnesota is assured a first-round bye.

Minnesota (19-10, 10-7) travels to Michigan Sunday in its final regular season game before the tournament next week in Indianapolis.

"It definitely will be a tough game," says Fox on the Gophers-Wolverines match-up.

But it's only one more to go.

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