The one-player class of senior forward Shae Kelley has flourished.
The first and only player Stollings signed since taking over the Gophers, Kelley has entered the NCAA tournament with the fifth-best scoring average in the Big Ten at 17.5 points per game. She's seventh in the conference with 9.4 rebounds per game. Her leadership was relied on even more after the loss of star guard Rachel Banham to a season-ending injury.
"She gave us the athleticism we didn't really have and the versatility we didn't really have, and she has been a large portion of everything that we've done this year with or without Rachel," Stollings said. "If Shae's not in the mix here, I think you see a very different-looking Gopher team."
Kelley took advantage of the NCAA rule allowing intra-Division I transfers to play immediately for their new school if they've already graduated, deciding to leave Old Dominion with one year of eligibility left for major-conference exposure to boost her WNBA aspirations and, ideally, the opportunity to finally play in an NCAA tournament.
That had been an elusive goal for the Gophers, too. They were given the No. 8 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional and a first-round game on Friday in South Bend, Indiana, against DePaul in their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.
"I thought I'd be a great addition to this team and add that extra little 'oomph,'" Kelley said.
After surpassing 1,000 points in just two seasons with Old Dominion, Kelley drew plenty of interest. Louisville. Ohio State. Washington. But she clicked with Banham and co-star Amanda Zahui B. on her visit and felt most comfortable with Minnesota. The Denver native, who originally signed with Colorado and started her career at junior college Northwest Florida State, knew next to nothing about the state when she came. This will likely be her only year here as a resident, but her senior season has sure been special.
"She just helped us hang a banner in Williams Arena with the return to the NCAA tournament," Stollings said. "And when you hang a banner, as I tell our kids all the time, you're up there for a lifetime."Kelley's official visit came so soon after Stollings was hired last spring that she didn't even have her staff in place and had to coordinate the logistics herself. As the coach previously at VCU, Stollings and her team played Kelley and Old Dominion each of her years there.
"I knew what a tough competitor she was and I knew her skill set very well," Stollings said. "She challenged us to come up with ways to stop her when we were playing against her."
Five freshmen joined the Gophers this season, too, all recruited by previous coach Pam Borton and her staff. Word began to circulate last spring about Kelley as an unexpected bonus for a program in need of a boost.
"I didn't really know who she was or anything. But I heard about her," guard Carlie Wagner said. "Everybody was like, 'This girl's really good.' And I was like, 'Sweet!'"
Kelley's value was quickly realized in December, when Banham tore up her knee just 10 games into the season.
"I think initially we were all scared. We kind of lost a little bit of hope at that moment, just thinking, 'Our best player went down. What's going to happen with the Big Ten season now? What's going to happen to our chances to the NCAA tournament?'" Wagner said. "But we really came together and surprised people, and really surprised ourselves, with what we can do."
Kelley wasn't fazed.
"Even though I'm a leader on the team and I'm the oldest, I think that all of us stepped up," Kelley said. "I personally never got worried. Rachel was a huge, huge asset to this team. And you hate to see that, especially as another senior on the team. I just knew that our team was capable of still winning games. I had trust in my teammates. I just knew that we would still be able to win games. We would just have to fight even harder."