Jan 17, 2013; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Purdue Boilermakers forward Sam Ostarello (32) fights for a rebound with Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Micaella Riche (15) during the 1st half at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Gopher women's basketball: Window closing, but hope remains

Jan 17, 2013; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Katie Loberg (25) shoots over defender Purdue Boilermakers forward Sam Ostarello (32) during the 1st half at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Women’s basketball in the Big Ten has been described as “fat in the middle,” meaning there’s a bevy of teams in the middle-of-the-pack and great parity between them.

For Minnesota, it was another week of affirming themselves as the underbelly of that fat in the middle.

The Gophers have made it clear who they can beat, and who they can’t – but a winnable schedule remains and a berth in the NCAA Tournament is still possible.

Minnesota split last week’s games, beating Iowa at home and dropping Sunday’s game at Illinois.

Even though sophomore Rachel Banham continued her stretch of excellence – notching 34 points and nine rebounds in Thursday’s win over the Hawkeyes – it was Minnesota’s second win against a “middle-of-the-pack” Big Ten team.

Coach Pam Borton’s squad is 2-7 against the top-7 teams in the conference and has not strung together back-to-back victories since Jan. 6 and 10, in which Minnesota beat Wisconsin and Ohio State to take a 2-1 record in the Big Ten.

A 2-6 record ensued and the Gophers most impressive victory – a Jan. 31 win against Michigan (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten) – is all but in the rearview mirror.

With five Big Ten games left, the Gophers have a chance to salvage their roller coaster season.

If Minnesota follows its blueprint — that is beating the lowly teams and losing to anyone else — the Gophers should finish 3-2 the rest of the way.

Banham & Co. carry a 1-6 record this season away from Williams Arena, but have two winnable games left at Ohio State (4-7 in Big Ten) and at Indiana (1-10 in Big Ten).

The Gophers host lowly Northwestern and the two-best conference programs Purdue and Penn State at home.

Barring a slipup, Minnesota can still finish with an 18-12 record, 7-9 in the Big Ten – which is underachieving considering this team’s talent – but could be enough for an NCAA Tournament berth pending the Gophers’ performance in the conference tournament.

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