While no one outside the University of Minnesota Women’s Basketball team’s orbit still quite knows or understands what went wrong between head coach Lindsay Whalen and star guard Destiny Pitts, this much is clear: the Gophers have moved on and they’re not looking back.
Thursday night’s 73-64 win in Madison was the team’s third straight win, avenging a home-court loss to the Badgers at a time when the Gophers were still reeling from the Pitts upheaval.
As you may recall, Pitts, an All-Big Ten Junior Guard, was suddenly suspended for “conduct unbecoming a member” of the women’s basketball team before the game at Illinois on Jan. 12. Shortly after the suspension, Pitts announced that she would be leaving the Gopher program to enter the NCAA transfer portal this happened just hours before the Gophers’ 76-75 loss to #22 ranked Iowa at Williams Arena, on Jan. 16.
This was no small matter. Pitts was the Gophers leading scorer last year, an All-Big Ten player last season, the unanimous Big Ten freshman of the year two years ago and was nominated for National Player of the Year honors before the 2019-2020 season tipped-off.
What was confusing was that before Pitts was suspended there were no outward signs of trouble. As Pitts said in her transfer statement, “As this was my first discipline situation of my career at Minnesota (or as a basketball player at any level), I was blindsided and shocked by the suspension.”
On her way out, Pitts said, “I wish coach Whalen and her staff nothing but the best.” For some reason Whalen refused to either explain her actions or trash Pitts. Whalen stated that she will always respect the privacy of a student athlete and will continue to do so.
Whatever was said internally, the Gophers received the message. Since Pitts’ departure the Gophers have gone 4-2, including three straight wins.
While still receiving sizable contributions from seniors Jasmine Brunson, Kehinde and Taiye Bello, the offense now runs through freshman guard Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia. Barbora Tomacova has increased her playing time as well.
When Whalen took over for departed head coach Marlene Stollings in 2018, the cupboard was hardly bare. Whalen inherited a team that was coming off a NCAA tournament appearance and returned multiple players who were named All-Big Ten.
Still, while last year’s team started the season 12-0, they then followed by losing seven out of their first eight games in Big Ten play while failing to return to the NCAA basketball tournament.
This year started similarly after dropping their season opener against Missouri State, the Gophers ran-off 11 straight victories before once again playing inconsistently once they began their Big Ten schedule. Things looked shaky for the squad which included a last-second loss to Northwestern that ended with Pitts sulking on the Gopher bench as the game clock wound down.
It was at that point that the season had the potential to implode. Pitts was gone, sisters Kehinde and Taiye Bello were also briefly suspended, and it appeared that the team was coming apart at the seams.
While everyone on the outside wanted to know what was happening on the inside, Whalen steadfastly refused to offer any insight other than her team’s play on the floor.
What that has looked like lately is two bounce-back wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin, teams that had beaten the Gophers in their first meeting.
There are still six Big Ten games remaining this season. With all eyes on the Big Ten tournament, much of this season still remains to be written.
While we don’t know any more about why the situation around Destiny Pitts deteriorated so rapidly, it’s clear that the Gophers have moved on. Instead of falling apart, they’re still clinging to a shot at a return trip to the NCAA tournament, and the remaining young women on the roster have responded to their head coach.