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Postseason push runs out for U women's basketball with WNIT championship loss

It was at the end of shootaround before the game that Gophers women's basketball coach Dawn Plitzuweit sensed there might be a problem.

Her players were alert, eager. But none of the shots were falling.

And that's what happened in the game. The Gophers lost to St. Louis 69-50 Saturday in the WNIT championship game. It was played on the campus of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, about 30 minutes northeast of St. Louis. So, really, it was a neutral site in name only.

Not that necessarily would have mattered. But after the one-sided loss — the final score doesn't indicate how well the Billikens (22-18) played while winning for the 11th time in 12 games — Plitzuweit said her team wanted to do the right things, but didn't have the legs to do them.

"It's not a matter of them not trying," Plitzuweit said. "They just ran out of gas."

Yes, the Gophers (20-16) had a difficult time getting to the title game. It's also true that the Billikens played four of six WNIT games on the road, including Wednesday's semifinal victory at Vermont.

But Plitzuweit, noting the team had traveled over 3,500 miles over three time zones while playing in Laramie, Wyo., in Troy, Ala., and then over to Edwardsville to play a third game in six days, said all those miles caught up to the team.

It showed. The Gophers shot 33.9% overall, making only four of 23 three-point attempts. They went 6-for-14 from the free-throw line and committed 20 turnovers.

The Gophers started out cold and never warmed up offensively. At the other end, the veteran-laden Billikens made 11 of 24 three-pointers for the game and shot 50 percent overall and 4-for-6 on threes in the second half.

Saint Louis ended the first quarter on a 14-4 run to go up seven and never looked back, pushing its lead to 12 at the half, to 22 after three quarters, by as many as 28 mid-way through the fourth.

Kyla McMakin (20), Peyton Kennedy (19) and Kennedy Calhoun (11) combined for 50 points, matching the Gophers total. Julia Martinez came off the bench, scoring just three but pulling down 10 rebounds and dishing six assists.

The Gophers got 13 points and seven rebounds from Sophie Hart. Mallory Heyer had 11 points and 11 rebounds, her seventh double-double. Janay Sanders scored 12.

BOXSCORE: St. Louis 69, Gophers 50

Dealing with double teams early, point guard Amaya Battle went scoreless for the first time this season after averaging 17 points per game in the previous four tournament games.

"When the season started, with Amaya, I thought she was passive," Plitzuweit said. "We kept trying to get her more aggressive. During the post-season run, she was really aggressive. But maybe she tried to be too aggressive today."

Through the disappointment, Plitzuweit said the team wouldn't lose sight of how much it had improved over the course of the season, how much had been learning in the post-season run.

"They learned a lot of great lessons," Plitzuweit said. "How to battle through adversity, play in tough environments. We understand what the post-season looks like now. They hadn't been in that situation before."

Still, there had to be a sting in the way the season ended, considering the momentum the Gophers had built, going 5-1 after the regular season heading into Saturday's game.

But the Gophers — the youngest team in the Big Ten this season — did gain some experience. They won 20 games for the first time since 2018-19, played into April for the first time, ending the season with leading scorer Mara Braun back on the sidelines with a foot injury.

"There are a lot of positive things to take away from this, and I hope people can focus on that,'' Plitzuweit said.

The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.