February 23, 2012; Columbus, OH, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Brianna Mastey (41) and Ohio State Buckeyes forward Kalpana Beach (1) battle for a rebound at Value City Arena. Ohio State won the game 81-56. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Pieces there, but experience needed for Gopher lady hoops

A month before the season began, Gophers women’s basketball coach Pam Borton said she had one of her best teams during her ten-year tenure at Minnesota.

With the return of Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rachel Banham and her longtime friend and teammate Kayla Hirt, who was returning from knee injuries in both 2010 and 2011, why wouldn’t it be?

But two games into the Big Ten season, Borton’s “best” squad has shown it needs to mature before reaching the conference-championship level fans have expected out of the veteran coach.

The Gopher ladies are 12-4 overall and 1-1 in the conference after beating Wisconsin 60-55 on Sunday in Madison.

Minnesota has certainly improved from its 9-7, 1-1 start at this same time last season, but a lackadaisical effort on the road against lowly Wisconsin is anything but encouraging.

Bad days happen – and Sunday was Banham’s turn. The sophomore shot 0-for-10 from the field, but salvaged her performance with 9-of-10 from the charity stripe and 10 rebounds.

Another silver lining for Minnesota was Hirt’s breakout performance. After playing just five minutes in the Gophers’ conference-opening loss to Michigan State, Hirt led the team with 15 shot attempts and finished with a team-high 12 points against the Badgers.

But Hirt, in her second year, is a freshman on the court. After tearing her ACL in her senior year of high school, the Bemidji, Minn. native did the same thing to her other knee just before her freshman season.

Her absence led to a 6-10 conference record last year, despite Banham’s 16 points per game.

Borton starts two freshmen with three juniors in her lineup – and those freshmen combined 0-for-15 shooting on Sunday in Madison. Banham’s proven she can get it done, but the young pieces around her need to grow in order for this to truly be Borton’s best year.

Any season in the Big Ten is a long one, but at least the Gophers have progressed to the point where they can survive Wisconsin – tied for worst in the conference – with their best player, Banham, shooting 0-for-10.

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