Gophers in tatters as they open Big Ten women's tourney today

Before Iowa's Caitlin Clark takes the Target Center floor in front of a sellout crowd in the Big Ten women's basketball tournament, before Ohio State and Indiana — among others — begin fighting for NCAA tournament seeding, the Gophers will try to recapture their competitive spirit that appears to have waned down the stretch.

"That means play hard, be efficient, take care of the basketball, get good shots," said Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit, whose team lost by 56 points at Penn State on Sunday. "That's not something that we've done at the level we want to do."

The tournament begins Wednesday, when the bottom four teams in the 14-team league battle for the right to play on Thursday. Purdue faces Northwesternat 5:30 p.m. The 11th-seeded Gophers will play 14th-seeded Rutgers 25 minutes after the first game ends.

The Gophers (15-14 overall, 5-13 Big Ten), having lost four consecutive and 10 of their past 11, enter the tournament with modest goals.

When they beat Michigan State 69-50 on Jan. 20, the Gophers had won three of four games, were 14-4 overall, 4-3 in Big Ten play and comfortably in the NCAA tournament field according to ESPN.

There has been only one win since.

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Still without guard and leading scorer Mara Braun (foot injury) and starting center Sophie Hart (hip), the team has struggled on both ends of the floor, having been outscored by an average score of 83.8-50.3 over the past four games.

Sunday's 90-34 defeat at Penn State was tied for the second-largest margin of loss in school history. Afterward Plitzuweit, her voice raspy and nearly gone, agreed that, apart from the difficult final score, the true disappointment came from watching a team that didn't have enough competitiveness. At one point in the third quarter, she benched all five starters.

While likely unavailable this week, the possibility remains Braun and/or Hart could return. And while an NCAA berth would only come with an unlikely — and unprecedented — run to a conference tournament title, the postseason remains a possibility.

A .500 record or better is required to receive a potential bid from the WNIT tournament. And while that much is guaranteed — the Gophers will be .500 even if they lose to Rutgers — a win or two at Target Center could cement that bid.

But winning or losing comes after concern about the way the team is playing.

"It's just bringing the energy and competing in every game that we play in from now on," freshman guard Grace Grocholski said. "Making sure we have the energy in practice and bring that into games."

Said forward Mallory Heyer: "Obviously we want to get a win and keep improving every day. Keep fighting."

There is no question the loss of Braun, and then Hart, have taken a toll.

Braun was the team's leader in scoring. She was the one relied on to help break full-court presses and consistently drew the other team's best perimeter defender. On the other end, she set the team's defense and almost always guarded the other team's best guard.

"She was also one of, if not our best, passer," Plitzuweit said. "You take that away, add on not having Sophie — someone who could catch the ball in the post and make something happen with it — the combination is really challenging."

The slide did start before the injuries. After beating the Spartans — the Gophers' best victory of the season — the Gophers went to Wisconsin and lost 59-56.

It was the next game — a 73-68 loss at Illinois on Jan. 28 — that Braun was hurt. She hit a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter that put the Gophers up 57-50 with 9:25 remaining, but she came down on the foot of former AAU teammate Adalia McKenzie, who had closed out hard. Braun had surgery.

Hart had scored in double figures in five of six games when a sore hip finally forced her out of action after an 88-63 victory over Northwestern on Feb. 17.

Without Braun and Hart, the Gophers bench has been stretched thin and players have been asked to do new things.

"The positive part of that is when players are doing something out of their comfort zone, they're going to grow," Plitzuweit said. "And that will continue to help us grow. But it's not necessarily easy."