MINNEAPOLIS — Laura Bagwell Katalinich is only 23 years old, but the Gophers forward doesn’t always feel like it. In the words of Indiana Jones, it’s not the age, it’s the mileage.
“Six years of college, man,” she said. “There’s a reason it’s (usually) only four.”
After playing last season with an injury to her shooting wrist suffered while playing at Cornell, Bagwell Katalinich — or LBK, as head coach Lindsay Whalen and teammates call her — was ready for a full season at her best in the fall. But a “freak accident” during practice resulted in a lower-body injury that set her back again.
“It just took a lot longer to recover than I thought it would — or anybody thought it would, really,” she said.
As a result, Bagwell Katalinich, a key cog in the Gophers’ machinery last season, spent a lot of time on the bench early this season. In the Gophers’ first 12 games, she averaged just 7.8 minutes, 2.2 points and 1.9 rebounds. But the graduate transfer from Minneapolis is back and playing her best basketball in two seasons with Minnesota.
“It’s bittersweet for it to be kind of at the end and finally feeling good,” Bagwell Katalinich said, “but it’s also the perfect time. I feel like I finished the back half of conference (play) pretty strong, and now we go to the postseason, where anything can happen.”
The 10th-seeded Gophers (14-16, 7-11 Big Ten) will need Bagwell Katalinich to play a big role in their conference tournament opener against No. 7 seed Northwestern (16-11, 8-8) on Thursday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Tip is set for 5:30 p.m. Central Time.
She has had two double-doubles in the Gophers’ past five games (3-2), the first in a 74-68 victory over the Wildcats on Feb. 11 — season-highs of 19 points and 12 rebounds. In the season finale at Penn State, Bagwell Katalinich had 16 points and 10 rebounds, leading an early charge with eight first-quarter points with what has become her calling card, midrange jump shots.
It’s a green-light shot. “That’s a weapon for us,” Whalen said.
But it’s not just that. Bagwell Katalinich is still doing the dirty work, rebounding and facilitating the offense from the high post.
“Her decision-making on whether to shoot it, whether to swing it to the weak side, I think that’s where she’s been really good,” Whalen said. “She’s read it really well.”
High praise for a player who wasn’t looking to play Power 5 basketball after one year at Penn and three at Cornell, where Bagwell Katalinich was the leading scorer for two seasons before entering the NCAA portal. Coming home to play for Minnesota wasn’t really on her mind until Whalen called.
“I remember asking a lot of questions: ‘What kind of defense do you play? Is it more man or is it zone? Are you set-heavy or are you more free-flowing?’ ” she said. “Because I had a good idea of what I could do in the Cornell system, which is more zone-heavy and more structured.”
The game is faster, and forwards bigger in the Big Ten, Bagwell Katalnich acknowledged but added, “I’ve found a way to contribute at this level, and that’s been very special, and that’s been compounded by the fact that I get to do it in front of my family and friends every night.”
Whalen likes to tell her players to take their moment when it presents itself. When the opportunity to play more came, Bagwell Katalinish seized it by playing her best basketball with the Gophers. But she’s not done yet.
When the ball is tipped on Thursday, Bagwell Katalinich will be looking for her spots — to shoot, rebound, deflect a pass or tie up a loose ball. It’s one-and-done now, and she wants the Gophers to keep playing as long as they can.
“I have a lot of bumps and bruises right now, but I’m not really worried about self-preservation at this point,” she said. “If it’s in the game, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
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