(AP) - Minnesota believes its best player will be helping in the NCAA tournament against DePaul on Friday even though she won't be on the floor.
Rachel Banham, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, tore the ACL in her right knee against North Dakota in December, a devastating loss that could have sent the Gophers' season into a tailspin. Instead, it became a rallying point as Minnesota (23-9) earned its first tournament berth since 2009.
First-year Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings called losing Banham one of the most challenging situations she's been involved in, especially as she changed to a more up-tempo style.
''It challenged us at every turn to be creative, to be motivating, to be inspiring and to get our kids to believe, which was the most important piece for us as a staff to get them to believe in what they could do individually,'' she said.
The Gophers wore ''Buckets for Banham'' T-shirts in warmups for their next game and won, despite struggling against Liberty. They wore them again in a close win over Central Michigan and again in a 72-69 upset of No. 12 Nebraska. The Gophers have been wearing the shirts since.
''The more we won, the more they wanted to wear them. So we will be wearing them Friday,'' Stollings said.
Stollings said the biggest thing for the Gophers is they didn't try to depend on one player to make up for the loss of Banham, although 6-foot-5 center Amanda Zahui B. has been a big factor in Minnesota posting its most wins since going 26-8 and advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2005. Zahui was selected the Big Ten player of the year by the media, averaging 18.8 points and 12.6 rebounds.
Zahui said Banham remains a driving force.
''We're just inspired by her because she keeps leading the team. She helps us get better and motivates us to win games and develop,'' she said.
DePaul coach Doug Bruno is more concerned about the players who will be on the court Friday when the ninth-seeded Blue Demons (26-7) face the eighth-seeded Gophers, particularly Zahui, whom he describes as the best big player in the country. DePaul's tallest player is 6-1.
''This is a very difficult and tough matchup,'' he said. ''We have to do what you always have to do. This isn't a complicated game. You've got to defend, you've got to rebound and you've got to make shots.''
DePaul is second in the country behind Connecticut with 86.8 points per game. Five players average in double figures, led by senior guard Brittany Hrynko (19.6).
Bruno, in his 29th season, believes it's good for women's basketball that top 16 teams are hosting games.
''It's not what you want as a competitor. It's what we need as a sport,'' he said.