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With Braun back from foot injury, Gophers aim for WNIT run

Amaya Battle and Mara Braun, together on a podium for the first time in nearly two months, were talking about a recent Gophers women's basketball practice.

Braun, aching to return to a game, was on the court before workouts began, shooting. Battle, who hasn't played with Braun since Braun broke a bone in her right foot on Jan. 28 at Illinois, joined her.

Braun: "She comes out and starts rebounding and firing passes. She was so excited, so giddy. She's like, 'I can't believe I get to pass to you again.'"

Battle: "I'm just super excited to be able to play with her again. I can't wait."

They'll have to wait until Tuesday.

That's when the Gophers, who received a first-round bye, will open WNIT action against Pacific at Williams Arena.

It is the NCAA tournament, not the WNIT, that teams aspire to at the start of each season. The Gophers had entered the NCAA discussion, and were 14-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, when Braun hit a three-pointer but landed on an Illinois opponent's foot, putting the Gophers up seven with just over seven minutes to go.

The Gophers lost that game. Braun had surgery, and the Gophers continued to struggle. Eventually center Sophie Hart's left hip forced her out of action.

Minnesota won just two of 12 games after Braun's injury.

The first was against Northwestern in the last game Hart played in. The second was against Rutgers in the opening round of the conference tournament, where Battle (36 minutes, 32 points, seven assists, five rebounds, one steal, zero turnovers) played the best game of her two-year college career.

Now, finally, the two friends and teammates will play together again.

That's what makes this perhaps more important than a normal WNIT run. Coach Dawn Plitzuweit talked about — and the players echoed — the mantra that a developing team can use a successful run here as a springboard for later.

But, more importantly, it is an opportunity. For the fans to see the same starting five that drove the Gophers to a 14-5 start. For everyone to see how the return of two key players will look on a team filled with players who were asked to do more while they were gone.

"It's exciting,'' Plitzuweit said. "For them, and for their teammates. "It's hard to watch your teammates go through adversity and not do what they went to do."

At first on that night in Illinois, Braun thought she had turned an ankle, or her foot. At first, she tried to stay in the game. But the injury was significant.

"I just tried to learn from it," said Braun. "It was tough to watch and not be able to physically help. But I tried to do my best in other ways."

Often sitting next to the coaches, Braun tried to see the game through their eyes. As a friend and teammate?

"Some games I was getting frustrated, and she would bring me back and center me," Battle said. "Just bring me back. She's always been a voice in my ear."

The loss of Braun — the team's leading scorer — and Hart had a cascade effect. Without Braun, Battle often found herself being guarded by the opponent's best perimeter defender. Without Hart, freshman Ayianna Johnson was pressed into bigger minutes. Without both, several players were asked to do more than they had before.

If there is a silver lining here, it's that some players grew. Battle, in particular, appeared to have gone to a different level during the conference tournament. And now Braun and Hart — though they may be on some sort of minutes count — are back.

So, as Battle said, the players aren't spending much time thinking what might have happened if the team had remained healthy. They are looking forward to playing again with the idea of recapturing something they can carry into next year.

"I kind of see this all happening for a reason," Battle said. "Not something to dwell on."

Said Braun: "We showed people what we're capable of, early on, with a full roster. This has helped the growth of our team. . . . We're excited about what we have, and hopefully we'll make a big run in this tournament."