Every team dreams of ending the season with a tournament victory in March.
Though perhaps not at the tournament every team has in mind, Minnesota did just that on Sunday with a win in the Women’s Basketball Invitational championship.
The No. 2 Gophers defeated No. 7 Northern Iowa 88-74 at Williams Arena to win the 16-team tournament.
Minnesota overcame a poor first-half performance thanks in large part to a 26-point day from point guard Rachel Banham.
The difference between the two halves was night and day.
The first half was characterized by sloppy plays and turnovers. The Gophers committed 13 turnovers and allowed Northern Iowa to sink seven 3-pointers.
“I thought they switched up defenses almost every time down the floor,” head coach Pam Borton said. “I thought that mixed us up a little bit — they were trying to speed us up a little bit.”
The first half saw an invigorated Northern Iowa bench and cheering section providing most of the noise in an otherwise-quiet Williams Arena.
The Panthers went into halftime with a 41-32 lead. They extended their lead to 13 points with 17:30 remaining in the game.
“The first half they played absolutely outstanding, made a lot of threes,” Borton said. “They came out and played extremely tough, bullied us a little bit.”
The rest of the second half was different; it was essentially all Minnesota after the break.
Borton said she thought her team “flipped the switch” on Northern Iowa, adding that the second half was probably one of the best halves on both ends of the floor her players had executed in a really long time.
The Gophers committed just three turnovers and limited the Panthers to just three 3-point field goals in the last 20 minutes.
“I thought we did a much better job in the second half staying home and forcing them to finish at the rim,” Borton said.
They scored 56 points in the half on 67.7 percent shooting. Banham scored 17 of her points in the second half.
“I thought Rachel did a great job making plays and really kind of taking it upon herself,” Borton said.
Borton stressed that the win was a “total team effort.”
Banham, Micaella Riche, Kiara Buford, Sari Noga and Jackie Voigt each scored in double-digits for the Gophers.
There was a senior-night atmosphere during the last few minutes of the game.
All four of the team’s seniors — Buford, Voigt, Brianna Mastey, and Nicole Mastey —played. The seldom-used Nicole Mastey scored a basket at the end of the game. Each of the seniors was taken out individually to applause from the Williams Arena crowd.
It was the first game of the season that Minnesota has won after trailing at halftime.
After the game, Gophers athletics director Joel Maturi was on hand to present WBI tournament awards.
Buford was honored as the tournament’s MVP. She averaged 13 points per game in the tournament. Banham was named to the all-tournament team.
Buford ends her Minnesota career as the seventh all-time leading scorer.
Borton has said repeatedly that her coaching staff used the WBI to glean knowledge about its team.
With the win, the Gophers finished their season on a 7-3 run en route to a 19-17 overall record.
“I think we got better, and [this] just really propels us into next season,” Borton said.
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