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Former Bemidji Lumberjack Kayla Hirt is expected to be in the starting lineup Wednesday when Minnesota hosts Green Bay in the opening round of the NIT tournament. University of Minnesota

BASKETBALL: Bemidji native Hirt, Gophers hoping to succeed in NIT after NCAA snub

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Kayla Hirt and her Minnesota women’s basketball teammates were disappointed Sunday when the Gophers did not make the NCAA tournament field.

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Instead of hanging their heads, however, the players have resolved to make the most of their NIT opportunity.

“I really thought we had a good chance at the NCAAs,” said Hirt, who grew up and played her high school basketball in Bemidji. “We had 20 wins and were 8-8 playing in one of the top three conferences in the nation. We also had a very tough strength of schedule. Because of that I thought we would make the NCAAs and it was devastating when we didn’t make it.

“But now we are a No. 1 seed in the NIT and hope to make a run in this tournament. Now we want to prove to the NCAA people that they made a mistake and that we deserved to be in the NCAA.”

The Gophers begin their NIT action 7 p.m. today at home against Green Bay. Minnesota will take a 20-12 record into the contest while Green Bay is 22-9. If the Gophers win tonight they will be home in the second round against either SMU or Texas Southern.

Hirt, a redshirt sophomore with the Gophers, is finally is at full strength. Prior to her senior season at Bemidji High School Hirt she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. After sitting out her final year with the Lumberjacks she was ready to begin her collegiate career with the Gophers.

During the next year Hirt was committed to her cause and when the Gophers began their practice sessions in September of 2011 she was ready.

And then, it happened again.

“One of our scout players drove and when I did the cross-over step I was moving fast and there must have been too much pressure on my right knee,” Hirt recalled. “I couldn’t believe that it happened again.”

The “it” was a complete tear of the ACL on her right knee. The tear was identical to the injury Hirt sustained to her left knee a year earlier and, once again, she was looking at a year of rehab instead of playing for the Gophers.

“It was tough emotionally to have to go through it all over again,” Hirt said of the surgery and the recovery process. “To be honest, at times I almost lost motivation. The rehab is a long and a boring process but I had a goal to get back onto the court and I knew I couldn’t take the rehab lightly.”

A year ago, as a redshirt freshman and after another year of rehabilitation, Hirt realized her dream of wearing Minnesota’s maroon and gold. And this season Hirt elevated her game to the point where she made the starting lineup midway through the winter and she is expected to be in the starting cast again tonight against Green Bay.

“I’ve had a good year,” Hirt said. “It started off slowly but I felt that I made progress all year. My role with the team has been a work in progress and our team has been a work in progress. It took half of the season to figure out what worked best for us as a team and now we’re playing well.”

Hirt has played in all 32 games and her 6.9 points per game average is fifth on the team. Hirt also is third in field goal percentage (.452) and fourth in rebounds (3.7 per game).

“This year I started as the sixth player but I think I made an impact each game,” Hirt said of her individual impact. “I was a spark when I came in but instead of playing 30 minutes off the bench coach (Borton) saw that it gave the team a better flow when I was a starter.

“My role is to be a shooting forward,” she continued. “As a forward I’m in the position to do the little things, such as screening and rebounding, to help us succeed. And I enjoy being in a position to do many things.”

Hirt hopes that tonight’s game is the start of a lengthy postseason run. If the Gophers make it to the NIT finals they will play six postseason games and such a run certainly would get the attention of the NCAA officials.

“The postseason is exciting and anything can happen,” Hirt said. “It will be exciting to see how things play out and where we end up. Hopefully, we’ll have another few weeks to play.

“I love my teammates and am very happy with my decision to play at Minnesota,” she continued. “But I’ve always wanted to be on an NCAA tournament team and it was devastating to me that we’re not one this year. Hopefully, we’ll be there next season.”

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