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Lindsay Whalen hopes to fill vacancies in time for June practices

Gophers coach ‘not happy’ about transfers but combing NCAA transfer portal for replacements

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Minnesota Gophers head coach Lindsay Whalen during a timeout in the third quarter of a college women’s basketball game against American at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Minnesota beat American, 73-56.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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MINNEAPOLIS — The NCAA transfer portal has decimated Lindsay Whalen’s Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball roster, leaving only three returners and four incoming freshmen in the pipeline for the 2022-23 seasons. But Whalen is not alone.

“It’s not just a Minnesota thing,” the Minnesota coach said Wednesday. “It’s not.”

Maryland, for instance, which advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to top seed Stanford, has had five players enter the portal, leaving coach Brenda Frese with only one returner who started more than 10 games this season.

Kentucky, which beat eventual national champion South Carolina to win the SEC tournament and was a No. 6 seed in this year’s tournament, has only two players on its projected roster for next season, one of them an incoming freshman.

So, Whalen isn’t the only coach combing through the NCAA portal looking for players who can make an impact next season.

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“That’s what everybody’s doing, every coach I’ve talked to,” Whalen said. “I’ve gotten phone calls and texts from a lot of coaches who are in that same boat. That’s all anybody’s kind of doing, that’s kind of what it’s turned into now.”

Not that she’s happy about it. Three of the seven players who have entered the portal this spring were starters — point guard Jasmine Powell, combo guard Sara Scalia and forward Kadi Sissoko — who would have played big roles next season as Whalen matriculates a highly-ranked recruiting class.

And it’s not as if Whalen isn’t assessing where things might have gone wrong. But she moves on with a recently signed, three-year contract extension and the confidence of her boss, Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle.

The two were in New Orleans for the men’s Final Four last weekend, Coyle for his job — he was on the NCAA tournament selection committee this season — and Whalen because she was being announced there as part of the next group to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“So, we met,” Whalen said. “I have his full support, our program has his full support. … The timing kind of worked out for (us) to talk about how to move forward.”

In Whalen’s fourth season coaching at her alma mater, the Gophers finished below .500 for the second straight year, 15-18 overall, 7-11 in the Big Ten. Since the season ended in a loss to South Dakota State in the second round of the WNIT, her roster has been shrinking in dribs and drabs. Scalia and point guard Alexia Smith announced their departures late last week as Whalen was leaving for New Orleans.

Scalia led the team in scoring as a junior, and her 111 made 3-pointers ranked third nationally. Sissoko averaged 17.4 points in the Gophers’ last six games, and Powell led the team in scoring as a sophomore last season, and in assists (5.6) this season. Whalen and her staff are now charged with replacing them with veteran players who also have entered the portal.

The goal is to add about five players before the team begins preseason practices in June. The good news is there are many players available. According to women’s basketball recruiting site wbbblog.com , there were 978 players in the portal on Wednesday, up from 843 last Thursday. Last year, more than 1,100 women’s basketball players entered the portal.

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That surfeit of players is the result of two major NCAA changes. One, players are now allowed to transfer to another Division I program, for any reason, and play without sitting out a year. Two, the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to all student-athletes who played during the 2020-21 season affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, for instance, juniors such as Powell and Scalia have two years of eligibility remaining.

The Gophers had three graduate transfers last season, two of whom, guard Deja Winters and forward Laura Bagwell Katlinich, became starters. Portal players already are committing for next season – Powell committed to Tennessee last week — and Whalen said she and her staff have been searching the portal virtually full time.

“That’s pretty much all we’ve done since our season ended, and as we started talking with players on our team and they’ve expressed what they’re going to do,” she said.

The three players still on the roster — point guard Katie Borowicz, post Rose Michaeux and wing Maggie Czinano — started their spring workouts this week. “I told them yesterday, ‘Next season starts now.’ ” Whalen said.

Whalen said her incoming class is solid and that all will start summer school in June. That class, ranked as high as No. 10 nationally by ESPN, includes No. 28 overall prospect in Wayzata point guard Maura Braun, as well as Hopkins guard Amaya Battle, 6-1 forward Mallory Heyer of Chaska and Eden Prairie forward Niamya Holloway.

The goal is to have a full roster to join the seven already committed in time for those June practices.

“If (student-athletes) want to try something new, if they think someplace else is going to be better for them, then we support them,” Whalen said. “We’re not happy about the players that have left, but at the same time, we’re navigating it like so many schools are right now.”

Portal players

Seven players on the Gophers’ 2021-22 women’s basketball roster have entered the NCAA transfer portal, which on Sunday has 939 players. They are:

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Jasmine Powell: Junior point guard averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 assists before quitting the team on Jan. 28. She has committed to Tennessee.

Klarke Sconiers: 6-foot-2 junior forward played in 11 games and averaged 1 points and 1.5 rebounds.

Erin Hedman: 6-3 sophomore forward played in eight games.

Caroline Strande: 5-11 off guard played in 11 games, averaging 1.4 points.

Kadi Sissoko: 6-2 junior forward led team in rebounding (5.7 a game) and averaged 10.4 points while starting 27 of 33 games.

Sara Scalia: Junior guard led team in scoring (18 ppg.) and was second in rebounding (4.3). Her 111 made 3-pointers ranked third nationally.

Alexia Smith: Sophomore point guard played in all 33 games with one start. Averaged 3.4 points and 1.6 assists a game.

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