SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Minnesota believes its best player will be helping in the NCAA tournament against DePaul even though she won’t be on the floor.

Rachel Banham, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, tore the anterior cruciate ligament 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.

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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,” Stolings 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 6-5 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 a game.

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.”

Other things to know about the NCAA tournament games in South Bend:

HARVARD HOPES: Montana (24-8) hopes to join Harvard in becoming only the second No. 16 seed to knock off a top seed. Harvard beat Stanford 71-67 in 1998. The Lady Griz face the Fighting Irish (31-2) in Friday’s late game.

“We are definitely aware of it,” Montana forward Carly Selvig said. “We aren’t going to go into this game thinking we are beat before we get started.”

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Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said she won’t be talking to the Irish (31-2) about that upset.

“No, I’m trying to build confidence,” McGraw said. McGraw added that she always roots for upset in the men’s tournament. “But never in the women’s tournament.”

GEOGRAPHY QUIZ: Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd was asked what she knew about the state of Montana.

“Not that much, to be honest. We learned capitols back in grade school, but honestly I’m not too focused about the state.”

Moment later a reporter asked Loyd if she knew the capitol of Montana. Loyd turned to teammate Lindsay Allen.

“Lindsay?” she asked.

“Ask me a math question,” she joked.

HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE: Bruno 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.

COACHING EXPERIENCE: Three of the four coaches in the South Bend bracket have had long tenures at their schools. Montana’s Robin Selvig, who played at Montana under Jud Heathcote, who later coached at Michigan State, is in his 37th year. Doug Bruno is in his 29th season and Muffet McGraw is in her 28th.

PERFECT MONTANA: The Lady Griz are 0-1 against Notre Dame. The lone win, 50-48, came in 1986, the season before McGraw became coach at Notre Dame.

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