Minnesota took on the University of Northern Iowa Panthers (20-12) in the first round of Women's National Invitation Tournament on Saturday.
Minnesota failed to qualify for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, so the team took the extra opportunity to compete at the Barn where they beat UNI in dominating fashion 91-75.
“Our last game we came out and didn’t have a great start so tonight was really good,” said head coach Lindsay Whalen. “We were focused and ready to go right from the beginning.”
Nine minutes into the game, Minnesota led by a score of 27-6.
Mercedes Staples started the game for the first time in her college career on Friday, and her performance proved she was deserving of the new role. Staples made her first four 3-pointers, and the Gophers led 40-15 partway through the second quarter.
“We had a lot of people step up, especially Mercedes,” said sophomore Destiny Pitts. “[With] her being a freshman, she stepped up big and showed she was capable of knocking down shots.”
By the 2:30 mark of the second quarter, Minnesota was on pace to score 100 points, with a 50 to 28 lead in the game.
Then in the second half, Northern Iowa made a desperate attempt to keep its season alive. UNI began the third quarter on a 8-2 run, with two big 3-pointers helping the team's momentum.
That spark was important, as the team was eventually able to get within 20 points of the Gophers.
In the fourth quarter UNI started out hot again, scoring the first five points and making a 13-5 run. With under seven minutes left in the game, the score was 75-61, and it looked like Minnesota was starting to fade.
UNI was not showing any signs of letting up, going on an 8-0 run. At that point it was a 10-point game; at 79 to 69 with 4:30 left on the clock.
In the end, Pitts and senior Kenisha Bell found a way to put the Panthers away with some tough playing down the stretch.
Pitts scored 29 points, shooting 50 percent from 3-point land. Bell added 22 points to go with 12 assists and seven rebounds. Taiye Bello rounded out the Gophers’ "Big Three," with 17 points of her own.
“We put a lot of focus into Northern Iowa, … they had a really good season. They were on the bubble for awhile for the NCAA tournament. We’ll enjoy this one for about 45 minutes and then on to the next,” Whalen said.
The Gophers will advance to play the University of Cincinnati on the road Sunday.