Though it was exhibition, Minnesota basketball is back on the floor at Williams Arena this fall.
The 2018-2019 Minnesota women’s basketball team opened up its season with the Maroon and Gold Showcase at Williams Arena on Saturday. The Gophers played against a scout team of male players who they also regularly compete against in practice.
The scrimmage served as an opportunity for the program to introduce its new staff under head coach Lindsay Whalen and to gain experience ahead of the first game of the season. Minnesota Lynx players Danielle Robinson and Rebekkah Brunson were also on hand to offer support.
Beforehand, radio broadcaster Lynnette Sjoquist kicked off the event, speaking to a sizable crowd of energetic fans.
“I’m excited because in less than a month, we’re going to be right back here for Lindsay Whalen’s first game back at The Barn,” Sjoquist said to the arena. “If you’re one of the four people in the state of Minnesota that doesn’t have your ticket ... I think we might have four tickets left.”
The team started the showcase by running a half-court execution drill to practice offensive plays. Two things were clear from the start: last year’s Big Ten freshman of the year, Destiny Pitts can shoot, and true freshman Mercedes Staples looks primed to be a contributor this season.
“They definitely deserve the excitement, I thought it was a good day," Whalen said. "We’ll continue to get better and when we tip it off it should be a lot of fun.”
Following the short drill, the showcase transitioned to a controlled full-court scrimmage. The crowd watched as senior Kenisha Bell emerged as the leader of the team. While the referees did not keep a score of the competition, it was apparent that the team had the edge over its competition.
Afterwards, Kenisha Bell had high praises for Whalen in her coaching debut.
"She still enjoys the game even off the court. She’s smiling, she's keeping the team positive, and keeping the team together," Bell said. "Playing under that vibe creates everyone’s intensity ... everyone works harder when they’re having fun and I think she brings that to the team."
Staples echoed Bell's praise.
"She knows everything," Staples said of Whalen's knowledge. "She knows what move to do, when to do it, she’ll draw up a certain play and it’s like, 'How did you even know that play? I never would have thought of that.' Her IQ is awesome."
Also on hand for the games was Paige Bueckers of Hopkins High School, who is currently ranked #1 out of 60 prep players across the nation in ESPN’s class of 2020 player rankings. Although she’s being recruited by many schools, Bueckers still found time to watch her hometown team scrimmage.
The Gophers wrapped up the event by meeting with fans and signing autographs for a half-hour following the scrimmage. They'll return to the court on Nov. 9 at home against New Hampshire.