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Amaya Battle lifts Gophers to win over Rutgers in first round of Big Ten Tournament

After losing by 56 points in the final game of the regular season, every single player on the Gophers women’s basketball team entered the Big Ten Tournament with something to prove.

To themselves more than anything else.

Either they were going let that embarrassment carry over or they were going to show some pride and fight back.

The scrappy sophomore guard Amaya Battle chose the latter. She had the game of her life on Wednesday night at the Target Center, scoring a career-high 32 points to lead the Gophers to a 77-69 win over No. 14 seed Rutgers. A chance for No. 11 seed Minnesota to continue its Cinderella run will come on Thursday night when it plays No. 6 seed Michigan.

“I came into the game with a blank mind,” Battle said while bashfully trying to describe her excellence. “It really helped that I wasn’t overthinking it.”

As impressive as Battle was scoring throughout the game, head coach Dawn Plitzuweit was maybe more impressed with her leadership.

“She was somebody who was a great voice in huddles,” Plitzuweit said. “I think after every single timeout she asked me a question about what I had just said in the timeout. Just to make sure she knew exactly what was going to happen so she could go back and relay that and that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. That leadership is something that we really desperately need so it was great to see her take that forward.”

That incredible effort from Battle spoiled a special performance from Rutgers junior forward Destiny Adams on the other end. She recorded 31 points and 24 rebounds, proving to be unguardable down low, while doing most of the work herself with not much help around her.

As for Battle, she got some help from her teammates, with freshman guard Grace Grocholski finishing with 11 points, and sophomore forward Mallory Heyer nailing a clutch shot from long range in the closing minutes.

It was clear from the onset that Battle was out for blood. She nailed a midrange jumper in the early stages to get herself in the zone and scored from every level en route to 14 points in the first quarter alone. She capped the offensive explosion with a shot from beyond the arc that beat the buzzer.

As soon as Battle got back to the bench, star sophomore guard Mara Braun showered her with praise. Never mind that Braun is out indefinitely with a foot injury she suffered a little more than a month ago. Through it all Braun has remained the biggest cheerleader for her teammates and she used that moment to hype up Battle.

“She was like, ‘I knew you were feeling it because you never do that,'” Battle said with a smile. “I was like, ‘Shoot I guess I’m feeling it.”

It looked like the Gophers might run away with the game early in the second quarter as they stretched their lead to 12 points That’s when the Scarlet Knights got hot from beyond the arc to chip away at the deficit with Battle battling through some foul trouble. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Gophers snapped out of their funk as soon as Battle checked back in before halftime.

It was back and forth in the third quarter with Adams imposing her will inside until the Gophers turned to sophomore forward Nia Holloway for her defense. Though she couldn’t stop Adams from scoring, she made her work for every basket, which wasn’t the case for prolonged stretches

“I thought Nia Holloway played an incredible game,” Plitzuweit said. “It was the most physical that we’ve seen her play and most aggressive we’ve seen her on both ends of the court.”

With the game hanging in the balance, Battle took over once again with 10 points in the fourth quarter, nailing a clutch jumper to create some separation before hitting some free throws to put the finishing touches on a game she won’t soon forget.

“I’ve played a lot of games against Amaya and she’s always had that competitive edge,” said Holloway, who played for Eden Prairie while Battle played for Hopkins. “I love to see it when she turns it on and thank goodness she turned it on for us today.”

Not that Battle was interested in taking too much credit postgame.

“We just wanted to stick together and be encouraging and bring energy,” Battle said. “We all did that so I’m super proud of our team.”

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