MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The University of Minnesota women’s basketball team has taken a strange journey to the top 25 in the national polls.

There is irony in the next game on the Gophers’ schedule, and there was a post-practice celebration on Wednesday.

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This was supposed to be senior guard Rachel Banham’s team, and Rachel Banham’s season. When she blew out her knee in a win at North Dakota, the season looked lost. That is, until the team kept winning. They’re now 3-0 in the Big Ten Conference and ranked No. 23 in the nation without their best player.

“We never said it was over. We said we had to step it up for her,” said sophomore center Amanda Zahui B. “We had to fill the space of attention that she draws, everybody from the starters to the ones who don’t play a lot. We had to do it for her.”

“We were really scared at first. It’s a big deal when your best player, your scorer and your team leader goes down,” freshman guard Carlie Wagner said. “We just realized that we had to step up and everyone came together. Some teams decide to fall apart, but we came together.”

They’re doing it with a temp that requires condition, then becomes fun.

“I love this up-tempo game,” Wagner said. “We enjoy running the floor so much, and we’re good at it. We’re athletic and fast, so we really thrive off the fast break.”

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One of the reasons the team plays at Williams Arena and not over at the Sports Pavilion where they used to play was years ago, when there was a first-year coach that came in and got the team to believe and play up-tempo. With that came winning basketball games, and ironically, she’ll be on the opposing sidelines on Sunday.

A familiar face will return to Williams Arena Sunday as the Gophers host Maryland with both teams ranked. Remember Brenda Frese, the one who started the program in a direction, who left for Maryland and won a national title, who will bring her team to town Sunday.

She’s a competitor and a role model to Gophers’ coach Marlene Stollings.

“I’ve known her for a few years. She’s actually been a very good colleague to me,” Stollings said. “When I was first getting started she helped promote me into a head coaching position, so we have a good rapport. We don’t talk on a regular basis, but we see each other quite often out recruiting.”

They had a little fun after Wednesday’s practice, celebrating Stollings’ 40th birthday. The team’s gift fell a little short in creativity with a cake, a card and a Minnesota basketball sweatshirt.

The players love the style Stollings has brought to the program, and now they’re looking to take down another highly-ranked team this weekend. But now they have a number of their own in the national rankings, something that hasn’t happened for several years.

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“I think it’s exciting. It’s exciting for our team. We faced No. 12 Nebraska here at home and upset them so it’s definitely going to be exciting,” Shae Kelley said.

Mike Max