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Gopher women's basketball still looking to ‘break through’ against Big Ten’s best

No. 25 Iowa offers Minnesota another chance Thursday at Williams Arena

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MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s basketball team had a minor breakthrough last season when it swept Nebraska in a home-and-away series. It might not have been monumental, but the Cornhuskers finished ahead of Minnesota in the Big Ten standings and were the only such team the Gophers beat in 2020-21.

The Gophers (9-9, 2-4 Big Ten) are looking for something bigger now, a win over a first-division conference opponent. It hasn’t happened yet, but they get another shot at it Thursday night against Iowa, which arrives in Minnesota third in the conference (10-4, 4-1) and ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll.

“To break through and start winning some of these games against tough teams, like Iowa and Ohio State, we just have to find ways,” coach Lindsay Whalen said Wednesday.

Whether it’s a timely stop on the defensive end or completing a drive in transition, the Gophers are missing big plays at key moments.

“We fight hard enough, we work hard enough, we have good effort, the coaches already have a great game plan, the players do it to the best of their ability,” Whalen said after practice at Williams Arena. “It’s just those key moments where we’ve got to keep pushing and keep working hard.”

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Minnesota isn’t the worst team in the Big Ten, consistently beating conference also-rans such as Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin and Penn State. But outside of a few wins against ranked Michigan State and Rutgers teams, the Gophers have struggled to break into the top tier.

This year, the Gophers are 0-3 against the top five teams in the conference with losses to No. 8 Michigan, No. 12 Maryland and the Buckeyes, ranked 25th in this week’s USAToday/Coaches poll. Against the five top teams in the Big Ten right now — Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, Iowa and Ohio State — Minnesota is 0-16 since 2019-20.

The Gophers have played to a script against their best opponents: fall behind early, battle back to make it a game only to lose steam and get overwhelmed. It’s what happened on Saturday against Ohio State. The Gophers trailed by one at the half, took two one-point leads and were down four before Ohio State finished the third quarter with a 9-0 run.

“I think in the second halves, especially, (it’s) those little key pieces of execution and the dips,” Whalen said.

Iowa creates real problems on the defensive end with sophomore guard Caitlin Clark, who leads the nation with a 25.7-point scoring average, and senior post Monika Czinano, averaging 20 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. Clark also ranks fourth nationally in assists at 7.4 a game.

“You talk about inside-outside in the conference, they’re right up there,” Whalen said.

Minnesota, Whalen said, needs to push Czinano — whose sister, Maggie, is a Gophers freshman — off the block on defense “because once she gets an angle, it’s over.”

Clark will need to be tightly covered on the perimeter, something Minnesota struggled with against quick Buckeyes guards Jacey Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell, who combined for 49 points in an 83-75 win at Williams Arena.

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Offensively, the Gophers will have to finish better underneath. They’re scoring at a good clip, averaging 73 points in their past four games, despite missing on a lot of chances down low, whether in the post or off drives. Their 42 percent team shooting percentage ranks 112th nationally.

Iowa is second at 48.07, behind Ohio State’s 48.17.

“We have to finish because we have to score with (Iowa),” Whalen said. “We’ve got to make some tough layups (Thursday) night. We just have to really focus. … We worked on it every single day this week, just finishing, because I think we’re going to make some tough interior shots.”

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