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Battle's career night boosts Gophers past last-place Rutgers; Michigan next

With just over seven minutes left in the game Wednesday night at Target Center, the Gophers women's basketball team was tied with Rutgers. Minnesota was being beat on the boards and basically getting beat up by Scarlet Knights forward Destiny Adams, whose 24 rebounds set a tournament record.

It was time, again, for Amaya Battle.

The Gophers beat Rutgers 77-69 in a first-round game in the Big Ten Conference tournament. In the process, the 11th-seeded Gophers (16-14) broke a four-game losing streak, avenged a loss at Rutgers not long ago, and advanced to a game Thursday against sixth-seeded Michigan. Tip-off is scheduled for around 8 p.m., depending on when the preceding game concludes, and it will be on the Big Ten Network.

And here is the main reason: Battle.

Not the only one, though. Nia Holloway came off the bench, battled Adams, hit the boards, denied the ball. Freshman Grace Grocholski scored 12 points, including game-sealing free throws late. Mallory Heyer scored nine points with eight rebounds.

But Battle scored a career-high 32 points. She hit 10 of 20 shots, 11 of 15 free throws. She handed off seven assists, grabbed five rebounds. She did not turn the ball over once.

Afterward, sitting at the podium with Battle and Holloway, first-year coach Dawn Plitzuweit had high praise.

"These two ladies up here played the best games I've ever seen them play," she said.

Absolutely no question, especially for Battle.

Her 32 points were 12 more than her career high, and a Big Ten conference tournament record for a Gophers player. Her poise was impeccable against a Rutgers team that tried everything to slow her down — going under screens and over them. Double-teaming her. Trying to get the ball out of her hands.

Nothing worked.

After the victory over 14th-seeded Rutgers (8-24), Plitzueit talked about how, after back-to-back blowout losses to Iowa and Penn State to finish the regular season, the coaches and players wiped the slate clean. Battle took it another step. The key to her game?

"I think I just kind of came into the game with a blank mind," she said. "I knew the scout, for sure. But it helps that I wasn't overthinking. It all just kind of flowed."

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BOXSCORE: Gophers women 77, Rutgers 69

The Gophers had a 12-point lead early in the second quarter. But it was a one-point game heading into the fourth quarter. And with Adams (31 points, 24 rebounds) going off, it was a challenge.

The game was tied at 61 with 7:11 left in the game when Rutgers' Lisa Thompson scored.

Not for long. Over the next three-plus minutes Battle took over, again.

She scored on a pull-up. Moments later she fed Heyer for a three. Battle also hit two free throws, then another bucket with 3:32 left. With Minnesota on a 9-2 run, Battle had six points and assisted on the other three, and the Gophers led by seven.

"She couldn't miss," Rutgers coach Coquese Washington said of Battle. "She got hot. We were contesting shots, trying different ways to stop her. She put the team on her back. For a stretch there it was, 'Get the ball to Amaya and see what she can do.'"

Everything, apparently, at least for this night.

Again, she wasn't the only reason. The Gophers forced a lot of turnovers in the first half and held Rugters to 31.4% shooting in the second half.

But Battle had the kind of game that can change the trajectory of a career now two seasons old.

"The coaches helped me, helped me grow my game," she said. "My teammates were super encouraging. They work so hard, and it inspired me to play well."

Injured starters Mara Braun and Sophie Hart were on the bench watching. Braun told Battle she knew it was her night when Battle hit a three to end the first quarter. Holloway — part of the all-Minnesota recruiting class that also included Braun, Battle and Heyer — has been playing against Battle for years. She never saw anything like this.

"I love to see it when she turns it on," Holloway said. "Thank goodness she turned it on today."