The Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s basketball team has set up a Jenga tower inside its practice facility. They don’t play the board game, per se, but if they have a good session, they add a wooden block to the foundation. If they don’t, they take one away.
“It’s corny,” Whalen said, adding the players were “looking at me the first day, like, ‘Seriously?’
“Well, you better get used to it because I’m a corny person and I’m the coach, so you better get with it,” she added. “I like to laugh and some of the stuff is kind of hokey, or whatever you want to call it, but it gives us a visual on how we’ve been doing.”
Whalen dug up the Jenga game from storage in her home’s basement and brought it in a few weeks ago when she saw her team put together strong spurts or halves during games but couldn’t close them out to produce wins. The idea: If they focused on building a metaphorical sturdy base, they could easily climb higher.
Minnesota has put together good practices since then, reinforcing the Jenga foundation, if you will, and it has led to their first consecutive wins of the season. Minnesota (4-7, 3-6 Big Ten) looks to make it three in a row against Purdue (6-6, 3-5) at 4 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position for a little bit of a one-game playoff here with Purdue,” Whalen said Wednesday. “We both have three conference wins. This game is worth two. It’s worth a win in the conference and a tie-break, if it comes down to it. It’s just the only head-to-head matchup.”
One key to extending the streak will be the health of guard Gadiva Hubbard, who injured her ankle late in Monday’s 85-76 win at Penn State. Whalen said Wednesday morning she hadn’t seen Hubbard since they returned from Pennsylvania, and she thought Hubbard might be a game-time decision against the Boilermakers.
Sara Scalia admitted Whalen’s Jenga set-up is a “little bit” cheesy, “but I think the meaning behind it helps us a lot.”
Scalia continues to play through a separated right shoulder suffered Jan. 3 against Wisconsin and had a season-high 21 points and matched her career high with five 3-pointers against the Nittany Lions.
Part of the genesis of the Jenga setup came after the Gophers lost a halftime lead against Penn State in a 69-60 loss on Jan. 12. It was a similar storyline to how they gave away a lead against Iowa a few days early in a 92-79 loss.
Whalen saw on Twitter a relatable story about UConn’s starting five in 2001-02 — Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash — which is considered the best starting five in women’s college basketball history.
A season earlier, the Huskies were up 16 points at the half in the Final Four, but lost that national semifinal game to Notre Dame. Whalen recalled how Taurasi was talking about the foundation of their team and how “they had a lot of things that they were working through and a lot of things that manifested in that second half, whether it was personally or team and different things.”
Whalen saw a correlation. “I just really took that to heart, and how can I help us continue to pour into our foundation?”
Whalen isn’t comparing her team to a historic UConn team that went 39-0 en route to a national championship, but she knows her group was better than the way it started this season.
“Obviously we are talented enough to be beating some of these teams. We played really well with (seventh-ranked) Maryland in the first half (of a 90-73 loss). Our third quarters, our second halves. How can we just come out and pour into that every day? It starts in practice.”
One Jenga piece at a time.