Minnesota's sharp-shooting Carlie Wagner looking for first NCAA women's tournament win
While most third-grade girls basketball coaches are content with players heaving two-handed set shots toward the rim in the name of fun over fundamentals, John Schultz wouldn't allow Carlie Wagner to get away with any shortcuts.
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"We would start every practice that way," Schultz said. "They weren't allowed to play tournaments until their form was perfect."
Before the Gophers practiced last Friday, Wagner was keeping her shooting form sharp inside the gleaming new Cunningham Basketball Development Center. Every day, she strives for 200 makes. As a rebounder kept feeding her passes, she worked her way around the 3-point arc. She jab stepped to her right and then stepped back to her left to create separation for a shot, with her former coach's tips engrained in her head:
Don't follow through to the side. Keep your arm straight, with your hand tilted down, like a goose. Keep the ball near your chest so opponents can't steal it.
"It paid off," Wagner said.
The senior guard — who ranks third on Minnesota's all-time scoring list — will lead the No. 10 Gophers into a NCAA tournament first-round matchup against No. 7 Green Bay at 4 p.m. Friday in Eugene, Ore.
Wagner's 2,180 points are behind only Gopher greats Lindsay Whalen (2,285) and Rachel Banham (3,093), and Wagner's shooting stroke has impressed Whalen, a four-time WNBA champion and three-time all-WNBA first team selection with the Minnesota Lynx.
"It's just so simple, which is what you want," Whalen told the Pioneer Press. "You don't want too much going on with your jump shot. Her feet are set, her follow through is perfect and she has a nice touch. There is no hitch in her shots. She releases it at the perfect point."
To prove how locked in Wagner can be, Whalen tipped fans to watch where her misses end up. It's often either long or short and rarely veers right or left. "It's on line," she said.
Coach Marlene Stollings inherited Wagner when she took the Gophers' job in 2014 and doesn't do much with players' shooting motion once they reach college. "We spent most of our time on footwork and pace, speed of release," Stollings said. "That is probably areas that we addressed the most (with Wagner) -- and just reads against a defender."
Schultz's daughter Jade is the same age as Wagner, so he coached her all but one year as she became a star at New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, a Class 2A school about 95 miles south of St. Paul. Their high school gym could hold a crowd of about 1,000, and during her senior year, complying with fire code meant they had to turn away a dozen of late-arriving fans.
Arrived and ready to turn Oregon Maroon and Gold. pic.twitter.com/IbWghMekog— Minnesota WBB (@GopherWBB) March 15, 2018
One of Schultz's favorite stories came years earlier during Wagner's sixth-grade season. He was preaching on players' ability to be ambidextrous in shooting layups, so for right-handed Wagner that meant going left. In one tournament game, Wagner had 25, 30 points, most of them breakaway layups with her left hand, Schultz recalled.
"I heard the opposing coach at the half, yelling at his kids to take her left side away, that 'She's all left handed,' " Schultz said, laughing. "I paid them a dollar for every left-hand layup they made at that age. She broke the bank. I couldn't do it anymore after that."
Wagner became so good with her left hand and driving to her left that Schultz would run offensive plays to take advantage of her skill on that side of the floor. Her game went to the next level when she broke a girls state tournament scoring record with 50 points in the Class 2A championship game victory over Braham in 2013. When Schultz returned to southern Minnesota after that tournament, messages from Big Ten coaches waited for him.
Before that, "Nobody believes a kid from a 2A school this small is good enough to do many things," Schultz said. Afterward, the majority of Big Ten programs recruited Wagner.
But for her, it was always about Minnesota. "She has always been a kid that is trying to do the right thing," Schultz said. "In her mind doing the right thing was to play for her state."
Wagner grew up watching mostly Banham, who is only three years older, and they were teammates Banham's senior season. Wagner was in third grade, first figuring out her shot, when Whalen's Gophers reaching the Final Four in 2004, and she has memories of that run. Wagner said now she will go back and watch highlights of the best team in program history.
"Both players are just unbelievable," Wagner said of Banham and Whalen. "The work that they put in and the name that they've made for themselves here. It's just so much fun to be a part of the same system and school and where they accomplished all their goals."
Wagner's list of goals is incomplete. She hasn't accomplished the biggest goal: winning an NCAA tournament game, bowing out in the first round as a freshman in 2015.
"I was just a baby," Wagner said. "For me, it was the wide-eyed, 'Oh my gosh, it's so cool.' I was just happy to be there. Now, I want to be there, but I also want to win games and not just, 'Oh, we made it.' I want to make some noise in this tournament."
This article is written by Andy Greder from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.