Kenisha Bell said her teammates look forward to seeing which member of the Gophers basketball program will walk into the locker room on game day “trying to be different.”
Sunday, it was coach Lindsay Whalen. Of course, most games it’s Whalen.
“Coach Whalen is that person,” Bell said. “She is the one who tries to be different, tries to come in with different shoes or different styles that everybody laughs and jokes about. She comes in with some swag.”
“Swag” can be “stuff,” or it can be short for “swagger.” Whalen has taught her oldest and best player to bring both to the court, inspiring a four-game winning streak and a run of impressive performances from the senior guard.
Sunday at Williams Arena, Whalen wore Kyrie Irving Black History Month Air Force 1s on the sideline, and Bell wore down a good Northwestern team in a 73-64 overtime victory.
The Gophers won their first 12 games this season by relying more on intensity than tactics. They lost seven of their next eight games, falling to 2-7 in the Big Ten, because they faced defenses that attacked their offensive strengths.
Chalk it up to a rookie coach trying to learn the Big Ten? That would have been fine, but the Gophers have won four straight, all against quality teams, to rise to 6-7 in league play. They are tied for 10th in the league but are within a game of six teams in the standings.
Sunday, Bell, a senior, produced 24 points, 11 rebounds, five steals and five assists in 38 minutes. She guarded Northwestern star Lindsey Pulliam, helping hold her to 10 points, and played a key role in the Gophers’ trap.
“She was all over the place,” Whalen said. “She just plays so hard, so hard, every possession.”
Gophers stars don’t have to look for career advice these days. Whalen took Bell to lunch before the season began to discuss the unique challenges faced by a senior guard with pro ambitions.
Coming from a Gophers star who became a WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist, there was no need for a guest speaker.
“We talked about what I needed to be and what I needed to do outside basketball and on the court to be more vocal and be the leader on the team, being the oldest on the team,” Bell said. “She told me if I want to be a WNBA player I have to do the little things that might not matter to other people but that should matter to me if I want to play at the next level.”
Whalen noted that Bell made 50 percent of her shots on Sunday, going 11-for-22. That is a point of emphasis for the rest of this season and for her pro prospects. She is quick and aggressive enough to get her shot whenever she wants, and that can lead to inefficient performances.
Only twice in Big Ten play has Bell made 50 percent of her shots, and the Gophers are 2-0. Overall, the Gophers are 7-0 when she shoots 50 percent and 10-7 when she doesn’t.
Asked if anything Whalen said precipitated the winning streak, Bell said: “We had a bunch of meetings, one-on-ones and team meetings, and she kept us up. She built our confidence and helped us stay confident through the transition. She knew that this was just other people’s runs and we’re going to have ours, and once we break through it will be something everybody talks about.”
The latest storm held attendance to an announced 5,475, but the crowd was loud and the game was riveting. At halftime, the program honored its alumni, and down the stretch the program’s most famous alumnus guided her team and her senior guard to an important victory.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations throughout the year about it being her senior year and how we go as our leaders go,” Whalen said. “But at the time, don’t play with too much pressure — enjoy this time.”
That’s easier to do when your end-to-end effort results in another win.