Depleted Gophers women start slow, rally to stop Eastern Illinois

Kadi Sissoko hadn’t played in a competitive game of basketball in nearly two years.

There was a knee injury, a decision to transfer from Syracuse to Minnesota, surgery, a year sitting out her transfer as her knee fully healed.

Finally, Wednesday:

With the Gophers playing with a skeleton crew, Sissoko was the key. Showing almost no rust, the 6-2 wing made nine of 16 shots, scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had two steals before fouling out in the final minute of Minnesota’s 72-68 season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois at Williams Arena.

The only downside was that, because of the pandemic, there were no fans to give her a standing ovation.

“It was really exciting to finally play,” Sissoko said. “And have fun on the court with my teammates. I’m really happy about this game.”

The Gophers needed all of it against the Panthers (1-1), who got 22 points from former St. Cloud Apollo star Lariah Washington.

It likely shouldn’t have been this close. But injury and illness limited Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen to just seven available players, three of whom — Justice Ross, Grace Cumming and Erin Hedman — were playing in their first college game.

But just about everyone contributed. Jasmine Powell bounced back from a difficult first half to score 21 points with eight assists.

Sophomore center Klarke Sconiers had 14 points and eight boards. Ross had a nice baseline drive and dish to Sconiers in the fourth quarter. In one crucial sequence Cumming had an offensive rebound, then a corner three with 3:12 left to put the Gophers up 68-60.

The game’s key stretch came from late in the first half into the third quarter. The Gophers trailed by seven with 3:09 left in the first half before finishing on a 7-2 run keyed by Sissoko’s three-pointer.

Then five players scored in a 16-5 run to start the third quarter, putting the Gophers up nine points on Gadiva Hubbard’s two free throws. In that 23-7 run over nine-plus minutes, Powell scored seven, Sissoko six. The Gophers never trailed again. Down seven, the Panthers rallied to within 68-65 on Abby Wahl’s basket in the paint with just over two minutes left.

But Sissoko hit two free throws. Then the Gophers forced a shot-clock violation with just over a minute left to maintain control.

Sissoko had really started coming on in the last week or so of practices, including a dominating performance in a team scrimmage Saturday, Whalen said.

“I felt she had really turned a corner,” Whalen said. “She had been unbelievable in the last two practices. She was incredibly efficient with what she did [Wednesday].”

The Gophers finish their two-game nonconference slate against Drake on Sunday afternoon in another home game. There is a chance Whalen could get another player or two back, but it’s not likely.

She still expects a full squad for the Dec. 9 conference opener at home against Michigan State, including starters Sara Scalia and Laura Bagwell-Katalinich and freshman guard Alexia Smith.

But Wednesday belonged to Sissoko.

“Kadi is a great player, we all knew it,” Powell said. “To have her come out in this game, and do the things she did — the points, the rebounds — it was amazing. It was just fun.”

Sissoko said she has to work on going between the two forward positions and on allowing too many back door cuts.

But the overriding emotion was fun.

“It was just, like, good,” Sissoko said. “Like a relief. I was working really hard to be back and just express myself on the court. It felt pretty good.”

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