Minnesota head coach Pam Borton didn’t know what to expect from her team coming into this season.
With just two seniors on the roster, it became immediately apparent that the Gophers would rely on inexperienced players to lead them back from the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
While showing improvements from last year’s finish in their first 11 games of the season, it’s also obvious that the Gophers (7-4) struggle on the defensive end consistently. They have just two more non-conference tune-ups against Alabama A&M and Northern Arizona before the Big Ten season begins with a trip to Illinois on Dec. 30.
The Gophers will go through the proverbial gauntlet in Big Ten play this year, with four teams currently receiving votes in the AP top 25 poll, including their Jan. 5 opponent No. 16 Iowa.
Early indications show that the Gophers aren’t the same team that finished last in the Big Ten and shot a conference-worst 37 percent from the floor last season, thanks to some young players taking on big roles.
While freshmen like Sari Noga — who has been a spark off the bench at times — have consistently improved throughout the year, signs of the team’s youth have also been apparent.
In just a matter of days, the Gophers twice broke the record for points given up during the Borton era, the latest coming in a 103-56 dismantling at the hands of No. 2 Baylor.
The Gophers also have the Big Ten’s worst turnover margin at minus 4.18, a sign of a young team still trying to adjust and gel together.
While eliminating turnovers and tightening up the defense are well within the Gophers’ control, they may have to deal with something almost unpreventable: injuries.
Sophomore center Katie Loberg has sometimes made the difference between a win and a loss when in the lineup but has been hampered by injury all season. She missed three games after injuring her left knee early in the year, and after returning for the Nugget Classic, again went down for two games with an injured Achilles.
Loberg, maybe the Gophers’ most dominant post presence, was absent in both record-breaking losses against Dayton and Baylor, who combined for 200 points.
Loberg came off the bench Sunday against Cal Poly and was productive in limited time, and while the coaching staff is taking no chances with her health, she should see more of the floor in the coming games.
“She definitely isn’t 100 percent,” Borton said Sunday. “I think we’re all waiting for our team to get healthy so we can have our whole squad out there on the floor.”
Leading scorer Kiara Buford twisted her ankle in practice Saturday but “hopefully” will play Tuesday against Alabama A&M. If that injury becomes more serious than originally predicted, it could potentially hinder the Gophers offense significantly.
Borton knows the importance of keeping key players healthy. After senior China Antoine, the team’s primary ball-hander, went down with an ankle injury last season, the Gophers never seemed to recover.
But luckily for the Gophers, sophomore guard Leah Cotton has put up starter-quality numbers even while coming off the bench for much of the season.
The Gophers’ second leading scorer, Cotton has continually asserted herself by driving hard into the lane and shooting a team-high 84 free throws. Last year, she averaged just 3.4 points in limited time.
“I felt like last year, I didn’t really believe in myself,” Cotton said after scoring a career-high 26 points against Southern on Thursday. “This year, it’s like a completely different thing. I know I have a completely different role that I need to take on.”
Even senior Kristen Dockery, who has re-emerged after injuries sidelined her for much of her first three years, has proven to be reliable in Loberg’s absence, giving Borton some confidence in her young, yet talented bench.
“Having some legit production off the bench for our team has been nice to see,” Borton said. “Being young in some positions and being limited in some positions, I don’t think we knew what to expect going into this year … We’re pleased but we have a lot of things we need to clean up before we play the Big Ten.”
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