In late January it looked like the Gophers women’s basketball team’s season had gone off the rails.
After a 12-0 start — including a Big Ten-opening victory over Wisconsin — the Gophers started losing. A lot. Four straight losses, seven losses in eight games. First-year coach Lindsay Whalen was, frankly, in a funk. She’d never dealt with losing like this as a player. She saw what her team was capable of but was struggling to get it out of them.
“I wanted to figure out how to really connect,’’ Whalen said before practice Saturday.
Easy to say, right? Whalen is just 36 years old. Even so, she’s nearly a generation older than her team, and she was finding the gulf a challenge.
So she changed.
Skip ahead three-plus weeks and a lot is different. The Gophers have won five straight Big Ten games, evening their conference record at 7-7 heading into Sunday’s home game with Penn State. Every one of those five victories has come against teams that were ahead of them in the conference standings, including a big win against then-No. 17 Rutgers. On Thursday the Gophers outscored Purdue 20-2 in the fourth quarter in a 65-45 victory that was Minnesota’s biggest-ever win in West Lafayette, Ind.
Whalen has won by going with a smaller lineup that includes Irene Garrido Perez, one designed to open lanes for star guard Kenisha Bell and to give more room for shooter Destiny Pitts. She also has done it by changing her approach to her job, an on-the-fly adjustment she has found gratifying.
“Carly [Thibault-Dudonis, a Gophers assistant] sent me an article on how to connect and how to manage this younger generation,’’ Whalen said. “And then that led to a book called, ‘Not Everyone Gets a Trophy.’ ”
Whalen smiled. “I’m a millennial, so in typical millennial fashion I did an audio book, because I can’t sit here and read. I listened to the book over a week of driving to and from work. I learned so much.’’
A Cliff’s Notes version: Set goals, put more into the relationship, make it fun.
Since then Whalen has instituted regular one-on-one meetings with every player. She has created little games — challenges — within practices; three-point and free-throw shooting contests.
“This generation, you can get a lot out of ’em,’’ Whalen said. “But it’s all about relationships, and putting more in. I’m learning to do that.’’
Being direct working
But it’s not been all feel-good stuff. Whalen also challenged her team. It was underachieving, and that had to end. Another thing Whalen has learned is the need to be direct, even if a player doesn’t exactly love the message.
“I had to change from teammate to coach,’’ Whalen said. “Cause they need a coach. That’s a big, big difference. All I’d ever been was a teammate. Yes, I was a point guard, the coach on the floor. But I still always wanted to make sure everyone is feeling good. And there are some days here where I have to leave and be OK knowing some people are mad at me. I didn’t always like Cheryl [Reeve, Lynx coach] every day. I didn’t like her after every game. But she sure made me play hard.’’
Whalen said she played some of her best games when mad. Turns out she and her players can agree.
“I definitely play better mad,’’ said Bell, who has played very well during the current winning streak. “And when we’ve got something to play for. She wants us to play for each other, learn from our mistakes. We started playing with a chip on our shoulder.’’
Said Pitts: “She knows how to push our buttons to get us going.’’
This isn’t to suggest Whalen has become a tyrant. But she has become direct in telling her players what she needs.
In their five-game winning streak, Bell has averaged 20.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. Pitts has shot 47.4 percent overall, made 12 of her 29 three-pointers (41.4 percent) and averaged 19.6 points.
Pitts scored seven points in overtime in the Gophers’ victory over Northwestern, then went to Purdue and scored 27 points, 23 in the second half.
Not NCAA team yet
It’s still an uphill climb. The Gophers will need to collect more wins — especially good wins — to get back into consideration for the NCAA tournament. Even after the five-game winning streak the team’s RPI, according to the NCAA, was 101st. But there is opportunity. After Sunday’s game the Gophers finish the regular season with three games against high-RPI teams: at Maryland (17th), at Rutgers (28th) and vs. Michigan State (23rd). Then there is the conference tournament.
But, for now, the Gophers have rebounded. Even in her first year Whalen has showed her ability to grow both on the court, with starting lineups and rotations, and off it.
“When you bring in a new coach, a new staff, you’re trying to mesh together,’’ Pitts said. “I think the way they’ve gotten comfortable with us is a big change, knowing who to push and how to push ’em.’’