Women’s basketball: Gophers ready for first Power 5 foe

Four games into the 2022-23 season, a Minnesota women’s basketball team comprising mostly newcomers has been something of a surprise — at least to those who expected little of them.

Inside the locker room, where there was no dearth of confidence among the young Gophers, who bring a 3-1 record into their stiffest test of the season to date on Saturday, a 1 p.m. tipoff against Virginia (5-0) in Charlottesville, Va.

“Our team is excited, for sure,” said forward Mallory Heyer, one of three freshmen who have taken turns leading the Gophers in scoring this season. “We’re really excited to play our first Power Five (Conference) school, a really good program.”

Heyer scored a team-high, and career-high, 19 points and added 10 rebounds as Minnesota blew Presbyterian out of the gym last Sunday at Williams Arena, racing to a 20-0 lead and keeping the foot on the pedal to win 82-48.

It was Minnesota’s best game of the young season, and a strong rebound from a 71-65 loss at North Dakota State on Nov. 17.

“We learned from it and then bounced back,” head coach Lindsay Whalen said. “We watched film (last) Friday, practiced on Saturday and then in the game (on Sunday), it showed. So, I liked that.”

Heyer, Mara Braun and Amaya Battle are three-fourths of Whalen’s Top 10-ranked recruiting class (Niamaya Holloway had season-ending knee surgery after a summer practice injury) and each has taken a turn leading the team in scoring. Battle scored a team-high 15 points in Fargo, most during a second-half charge, and Braun led the team in the first two games, averaging 27.5 points.

Braun was held out of the NDSU game because of a left foot injury, then came off the bench to play 19 minutes against Presbyterian, finishing with nine points, three rebounds and three assists.

“The goal is to progress her this week so we can not have her on restriction,” Whalen said. “That’s the goal this week.”

The Gophers took Monday and Tuesday off before returning to practice on Wednesday. The team will have a practice, open to family, on Thursday followed by a Thanksgiving lunch. The Gophers will practice again Friday before traveling to Virginia, where they’ll also play Liberty (2-2) on Sunday at 4 p.m.

The Cavaliers are rolling under new coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, outscoring opponents by an average of 22 points a game. All five Virginia starters are scoring in double figures, led by Camryn Taylor, a senior who played her first two seasons at Marquette. She is averaging 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.

Among seven transfers — some new this season, some new last season — is former Minnesota point guard Alexi Smith, one of several Gophers to leave after last season. She’s coming off the bench to average 6.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists.

“It’s great to have four games under our belt with, as we knew going in, the amount of new players and new faces,” Whalen said. “It’s great to go back and watch some games and see areas where, through four games, we can be better, and keep expanding on things we’re feeling pretty good about.”

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