Sara Scalia has been a bright spot for struggling Gophers women's basketball

·3 min read

Jan. 28—Gophers women's basketball is in a rut of sorts, losers of five of their past six games heading into Sunday's 2 p.m. tipoff against Wisconsin at Williams Arena. Minnesota needs a win, badly.

After Thursday night's 80-66 loss at Purdue, the Gophers are 9-12 overall, 2-7 in Big Ten play.

"I wouldn't necessarily say this is where we should be in the Big Ten," junior guard Sara Scalia said. "But we have a couple games coming up that we need to win. I think we're better than some of these teams, so I think we need to start to get on a run here."

If the Gophers still harbor hopes of playing in the postseason, whether it's the NCAA or National Invitation tournament, it's a must. The Badgers (5-14, 2-7) would be a good place to start. Minnesota won the last meeting in Madison, 82-66, on Jan. 12.

Since then, Minnesota has dropped four straight, including a 105-49 loss to Iowa on Jan. 20, its worst since women's basketball came under the NCAA umbrella in 1982. During a difficult start to the New Year, Scalia has been the team's biggest bright spot, emerging as a leader on and off the court.

Heading into Sunday, Scalia has scored in double digits in 11 straight games, and although she was held to 10 points by an aggressive, physical Boilermakers defense on Thursday, she is probably the biggest key to a potential turnaround for a program that hasn't played in the postseason since the 2019 WNIT, and is flirting with a second straight losing season.

"She is doing a lot for us," Whalen said.

The junior from Stillwater leads the Gophers with a 16.1-point scoring average, solidly the team's top scoring threat after playing a breakout supporting role as a sophomore last season. Her 65 made 3-pointers rank second in the Big Ten, and her 42-percent shooting from behind the arc is eighth.

Already this season Scalia has scored 37 and 31 points, adding to her scoring repertoire with a developing dribble drive and the ability, and willingness, to take the ball coast to coast.

"Halfway through the Big Ten season, you're kind of seeing that spark and kind of seeing that next-level stuff (from Scalia)," Whalen said, "and I feel like we're just at a point where she'll just keep getting better and keep ascending."

Scalia also hasn't shied from speaking her mind publicly. After the 56-point loss to Iowa, she told reporters the Gophers were "not playing connected, and sometimes not really for each other."

Asked this week about that candid assessment, Scalia said, "It's just tough. I feel like, as you could probably see, we didn't exactly give it our all. So, I think for me, whether we win or lose, I just want to make sure that myself, as well as the people I'm playing with are giving max effort — because I don't want to go away from here with any regrets."

A tireless worker, Scalia practices on her own three to four nights a week — 500 made baskets each time. She will be part of a team bringing in a Top 10 recruiting class in 2022, but she also could use the NCAA's COVID waiver to play a sixth season.

"She's on the top of everybody's scouting report. You walk in the gym and it's like everybody is guarding her out here. And she doesn't let it bother her," Whalen said. "She remains calm, stays composed, and they're getting physical with her. I mean, she's getting hand-checked all over the place, and she's just kind of stayed poised and remained calm.

"Now she's figured out, too, that 'If I want more space, maybe just take a step back.' And of course people are like, 'Should I guard her out there?' And you should."