Rachel Banham played five years of high school varsity basketball. Her coach thought she could have played six. Her high school legacy had recruiting sources like ESPN and Rivals raving about her as a top-five point guard recruit.
Her basketball journey is far from over, but an outstanding freshman season prompted the Big Ten to name her the conference’s Freshman of the Year on Monday.
As an eighth grader on a varsity high school team, Lakeville, Minn., native Banham said she was initially nervous and intimidated.
That didn’t show on the court, according to her high school coach.
“The first year she made, I want to say, three game-tying or game-winning shots as an eighth grader, and we would always say to ourselves, ‘She doesn’t really understand what’s going on yet, she’s just out there playing and having fun,’” said Andy Berkvam, head girls coach at Lakeville North.
Praise and accolades are nothing new for the 5-foot-9-inch point guard. She was 2010-11 Minnesota Miss Basketball, the Minnesota Associated Press 2011 Player of the Year and 2011 Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year.
The list of accolades got even longer with her Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. She was also named to the Second Team All-Big Ten team by the Big Ten media and coaches Monday.
She hasn’t appeared intimidated this year for the Gophers. As a freshman, she led the team with 16.1 points per game — good for seventh in the Big Ten — and has been the team’s most consistent player throughout the year.
Banham has scored in double-digit points in 28 of 30 games this year, including the past 26. Her streak is the second longest in the conference this year.
Her backcourt mate and mentor, Kiara Buford, noted Banham’s consistency as one of her most impressive qualities.
“For her to be a freshman and come in and be consistent scoring and playing point and handling pressure, that’s very impressive for someone that’s just coming in,” Buford said.
For her part, Banham said her confidence has been linked to her consistency. She said she’s noticed that when she’s confident, the shots fall.
There has been pressure placed upon her, especially when her teammates aren’t scoring, but she tries to use it to her benefit. In addition, she was often compared at the beginning of the season to former Gophers superstar Lindsay Whalen.
“There’s definitely pressure. I just try to use that as motivation, really,” she said.
In many games this season, Banham and Buford have seemingly been the only offensive contributors. Both said having other scoring options makes their jobs easier.
“I think she’s probably one of the only other guards on our team that I can trust to dribble under pressure, get shots off, [and] create [opportunities] on her own,” Buford said.
Prolific scoring is nothing new for Banham, but her immediate impact was perhaps greater than expected.
“I knew that she was going to make a huge splash in our program. We needed another point guard, we needed someone that could make a difference, and I knew she would, but not at this magnitude,” Gophers head coach Pam Borton said.
She picked up at Minnesota right where she left off at Lakeville North High School. In her senior year, she averaged 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game with the Cougars.
Berkvam, her high school coach, said he thought she could have averaged more than 20 points per game if she had played more minutes. When the team had huge leads over opponents, some of the stars like Banham sat.
In her junior year, she led her team to a 32-0 record and a state championship. In the title game, Banham scored a game-high 25 points.
Despite the fact that she was being recruited heavily around the country, she said her decision to come to Minnesota was an easy one
“Rachel wanted to be here more than anything, so it wasn’t really that tough to recruit her,” Borton said.
The freshman said she wanted to stay close to home and that her family is there in support at every single game.
Her brother, Cole Banham, is a redshirt sophomore on the Gophers football team.
Buford and Borton described her as “goofy,” which Banham said is a fair assessment.
But just as frequently, if not more often, she gets tagged with the “competitor” label. That trait is one of the aspects of her game that drives her to success.
“We used to have Wednesday practice we called ‘competition days,’ where we split the kids evenly,” Berkvam said. “In the last three years, I don’t know if the team she was on ever lost one of those because she would always make sure they’d win somehow.”
Berkvam had Banham write down a five-year plan before her senior year, and she has already begun to knock off some of those tasks — including being a starter and team leader at Minnesota.
Along with Buford, Banham has taken a leadership role on the team.
“It’s hard when you’re young, but she’s good enough to where her teammates are going to follow her and listen to what she’s going to say,” Buford said.
When Buford, a senior, leaves, the team’s dependency on Banham’s leadership figures to increase. That only seems natural, as she’s the point guard and the best player on the court.
“I think coming from a very disciplined and structured background has allowed her [to succeed here]. She was challenged before she got here, and I think that helped,” Borton said.
Part of that discipline comes from her parents, who are both police officers. She said she aspires to follow in their footsteps.
Before that, however, there’s a lot more in store for her, starting with the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.
And then there’s the offseason, during which Borton expects Banham to improve her game even more.
“She needs to become extremely fit. She needs to get in the weight room. She’s got a frame where she can really put on a lot of muscle, and I think that will take her to another level,” Borton said.
Banham led the team in turnovers this season, as point guards frequently do. But Borton said she’ll be able to cut down on it as she becomes more mature and learns her teammates’ strengths and weaknesses better.
“I just want to be the best at every part of the game,” Banham said. “I’m a pretty good ball handler, and I’m a pretty good shooter, but I want to make it where I never miss shots, I never get the ball stolen, I’m a hustler on defense and getting every rebound,” Banham said.
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