As a successful nonconference run turned into a stressful Big Ten Conference experience, Lindsay Whalen will tell you she learned. A lot.
The first-year coach of the Gophers women’s basketball team went 11-0 through a relatively soft nonconference schedule. But, after opening conference play with a victory over Wisconsin, the Gophers lost four in a row and seven of eight. Opponents played zone and Minnesota couldn’t shoot teams out of it. The Gophers struggled to put four quarters together.
A difficult stretch. But educational.
“I learned more in that stretch, how to coach this team and how to get us out of [that streak] than I did in the entire nonconference,” Whalen said this past week.
Whalen and her staff changed up the rotation. Against Purdue on Jan. 24, Whalen moved senior Irene Garrido Perez into the starting lineup in place of Jasmine Brunson, but it didn’t work; the Gophers needed Brunson’s perimeter defense.
And so, three games ago, another change: Whalen went small. She put Brunson back into the lineup with Perez, Taiye Bello, Kenisha Bell and Destiny Pitts, having center Annalese Lamke come off the bench.
So far, it has worked.
That lineup — Pitts (5-10), Brunson (5-8) and Bell (5-9), along with the 6-1 Perez and the 6-2 Bello — has gone 3-0. That includes two road victories. The Gophers went to Northwestern Jan. 31 and beat the Wildcats, who had won four straight games and were tied for fourth place. The Gophers came home and upset Rutgers, then ranked 17th and in first place in the Big Ten. Wednesday, the Gophers won at Indiana.
Whalen and her players will tell you a big part of that has nothing to do with going small. It’s effort, they say.
“We’re playing hard,” Whalen said. “We’re playing aggressively.”
“After going on a losing streak like we did,” Bello said, “you can’t be anything but hungry.”
Said Bell: “We’re probably the hungriest team in the Big Ten right now.”
But, in terms of X’s and O’s, the new lineup has helped just about everyone.
It was a relatively bold move, one that has the Gophers at a size disadvantage in most games. But by putting another outside shooter on the wing in Perez, space has opened up for the Gophers’ best shooter, Pitts. It has also created lanes for Brunson and especially Bell. And Bello’s quickness and rebounding prowess — she’s leading the Big Ten and is third in the nation in rebounding (13) — has allowed Whalen to surround her with four perimeter players.
Perhaps the best story to come out of this is Perez, a native of Granada, Spain, whose desire to play college basketball in the United States took her first to Western Wyoming Community College and then, before last season, to Minnesota.
A part-time player as a junior, Perez appeared in just 14 games, taking just 16 shots and scoring 14 points all season.
She played decent minutes off the bench at the start of this season, but her time went way down once the conference season started. But those numbers rose as she joined the starting lineup, and have gone up even more the past three games.
Wednesday at Indiana, Perez hit all four of her shots, three from behind the three-point arc, grabbed six rebounds, made two steals and scored a career-high 11 points while playing all 40 minutes for the first time in her career. In the past three games she has played 112 minutes, exactly double what she played her entire junior year.
“I was surprised at first,” Perez said of her sudden opportunity. “I think I played well in practice, and I was getting better. When she told me I was going to start, I was really excited. The last couple of weeks I’ve been getting more comfortable.”
Whalen calls Perez perhaps her best off-the-ball defender. She has the length to affect a shot. On offense, though it took her a while to start taking the shots she was getting. She is enough of a threat that lanes have opened up for her teammates on offense. On defense, the Gophers have been able to pressure the ball on the perimeter enough to negate their size disadvantage.
The result has been a turnaround of late. “We tried a couple things,” Whalen said. “We mixed the lineups. It’s been the players’ hard work in practice and our staff finding ways to help the team. It’s been a good combination.”