Gadiva Hubbard wasn’t sure the Gophers would have a season at all. She said she was “really surprised” when she heard the season was moving forward. She sees the COVID-19 cases on the rise and is still not sure the season will finish.
The redshirt senior will be one of just seven players available to coach Lindsay Whalen when the Gophers, depleted by COVID-19 and injury, kick off their delayed 2020-21 campaign on Wednesday at 2 p.m. The Gophers will host Eastern Illinois at Williams Arena in their first of just two nonconference games before Big Ten play begins next week.
While the Gophers were forced to shut down practice for a period of time last month, they’re thankful that the season is finally beginning on Wednesday, even if being shorthanded provides an obstacle right out of the gate.
“Basically, you just can’t take any game for granted because you don’t know if you’ll play in your next game or if you’ll have a season after that game,” Hubbard said. “So, you really do have to take it day-by-day, game-by-game.”
Whalen said the Gophers would likely have seven players through this week, though they hope Kayla Mershon will receive a transfer waiver from the NCAA and become eligible to play soon. Mershon is healthy, and another experienced player would help, especially now.
When the Gophers do have their full complement of players back, they’re excited about what they’ll be putting out on the court. Minnesota finished last season 16-15 with a 5-13 conference record before getting knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament in the second round before the NCAA canceled the rest of the season due to COVID-19.
The Gophers return starters Hubbard and Scalia, as well as Jasmine Powell, who started 12 of 31 games for Minnesota last season. Five-star recruit Alexia Smith heads the incoming freshman class, and transfer graduate student Laura Bagwell-Katalinich brings experience from Cornell.
Kadi Sissoko, who had to sit last year as a transfer, also enters the equation. Sissoko was the No. 10-ranked player in the 2018 recruiting class, and while the Gophers are excited to get her on the court, that doesn’t match her own excitement after a long lay off from competition.
“I learned to be patient because it was really hard not to be able to play,” Sissoko said. “But I was watching Diva and all the players that were in my position on the court (to) learn how they were moving and just getting ready for this season and (learning) from them as much as I can.”
How the new infusion of talent translates to the court won’t be known for some time still. Practices have included 3-on-3 and 2-on-2 as the Gophers work around their current limitations.
The group has been working together on and off for months, though. Whalen said they brought players back in in July. They went home in August and came back in September. Now, they’re finally on the precipice of return.
“That’s a long time of starting up, shutting down, starting up, shutting down,” Whalen said. “It’s been a lot on them, but I think now I can feel the energy, I can feel their excitement now that they get to play a game.”