January 4, 2024
Checking in with Rachel Banham
The Minnesota legend talks Big Ten scoring prowess, upcoming free agency
A lot has changed in women’s basketball since Rachel Banham finished her record-breaking collegiate career at the University of Minnesota in 2016.
The sharpshooting guard left the Gophers as the Big Ten’s top scorer with 3,093 points and was tied with Cindy Brown of Long Beach State for the most points in a single NCAA women’s basketball game with 60 in a 112-106 double-overtime win over Northwestern in 2016.
Kansas State center Ayoka Lee now stands alone with the single-game record, scoring 61 points against Oklahoma in January 2022. Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell took over the Big Ten’s scoring record in 2018 with 3,402 points, placing her second overall in the NCAA behind Washington’s Kelsey Plum’s 3,527, set in 2017.
Now, another Big Ten guard is on track to break the conference scoring record—and she just may break the national record by the end of the season. After Tuesday’s buzzer-beating shot from the logo against Michigan State, Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark has 3,189 points and quickly counting, as she is averaging 31.5 points per game.
Banham, a WNBA free agent who is an assistant coach and director of quality control at her alma mater this season, couldn’t be prouder to be in the mix of the great scoring tradition in the Big Ten.
“It’s amazing. I feel like the Big Ten has always been good basketball. That’s why I wanted to play in the Big Ten, because I truly think it’s one of the best conferences in the nation,” she told The Next. “We have some of the best scorers in the nation come out of the Big Ten. Obviously with Clark and then Kelsey Mitchell, and there’s been a ton before that. I’m proud of it. I’m happy to be part of the Big Ten.”
Clark has mutual respect for Banham, giving her props after passing her on the all-time scoring list with a 35-point performance Dec. 11 at home against Loyola-Chicago.
“Rachel is somebody that’s a great player and still plays in the WNBA, plays for my favorite WNBA team, the Minnesota Lynx. I grew up loving the Lynx,” Clark told reporters after the game. “So it’s always cool to be on the same list as a lot of great players that you’ve idolized growing up, and I think it still kind of takes you back a little bit when your name is in the mix of some of those really, really tremendous players.”
The next game after the holiday break, the Hawkeyes dismantled the Gophers 94-71 at home Dec. 30. Minnesota came into the game 11-1 under new head coach Dawn Plitzuweit after winning just 11 total games last season.
“I’ve been really happy with the way we have been performing, and I’ve seen us get better every day, so that’s been fun to watch, especially with the younger group,” Banham told The Next just days before the Iowa game. “I think we probably surprised some people.”
Banham joined the Minnesota staff as director of quality control in 2022 under fellow Gophers legend Lindsay Whalen. When Plitzuweit took over the program last summer, she promoted Banham to assistant coach. Between both positions, she has a variety of duties.
“I do whatever is needed of me,” she said. “I work on our alumni stuff, setting up our alumni weekend and reaching out to alumni, sending emails, letters in the mail. I also help with Little Gopher Camp stuff and work out with the players during practice and after practice.”
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Like many college stars, Banham had a difficult time transitioning into the WNBA. A first team All-American and John R. Wooden Award finalist her senior year, the 2016 Big Ten Player of the Year was drafted fourth by the Connecticut Sun. She played just 15 games her rookie year, averaging 3.7 points in 10.9 minutes per game before tearing her MCL midseason.
“It was tough in areas. It’s so much more physical. It’s a faster game. Everyone’s good,” she said of the differences between college and the WNBA. “So you have to find ways to get advantages. Obviously my shooting is the best part that I have to excel at. And then you have to find other ways to stand out and to be valuable on the court. Just being able to figure that out and carving my value in this league has been a journey.”
In her first four seasons with the Sun, she did not get much playing time, averaging 11.4 minutes, four points, one assist and one rebound a game.
“My first couple years I didn’t play a whole lot and was just really trying to figure out where I fit. My confidence kind of wavered, and I’ve really found myself more throughout the years, but it’s definitely a tough transition,” she said. “It all depends on your situation that you go into, the team that you’re on, how much they need you, where they plan to play you at. All those factors play a role, but also just trying to remember to believe in yourself, too, at times, because it does waver when you’re playing against the best people in the world.”
She encourages college players entering the WNBA to stay patient and keep doing the things that got them there in the first place.
“I would always say to be true to yourself. Don’t ever try to be anyone you’re not; they draft you and they want you for a reason, so do that to the best of your ability. If you’re a shooter, shoot the ball,” she said. “Go out there and be your best at that and then be a great teammate. Coaches love that — being a great teammate, being disciplined and doing what you do. You don’t have to try to come into a training camp and be someone you’re not. I’m not going to come in and be this crazy driver and get to the rim; that’s not me. And if you do that, it’s a quick way for them to be ‘All right, we don’t want this chick.’ That’s not what they want you there for, so just be yourself.”
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Minnesota in her blood
Banham returned to her home state in 2020, when she was acquired by the Lynx in a sign-and-trade deal that sent Minnesota’s 2021 second-round pick to the Sun. During the 2020 “bubble” season in Bradenton, Florida, she averaged multiple career highs — 17.4 minutes, 6.9 points, 2.4 assists and 1.3 rebounds a game. In 2022, she topped that with 17.5 minutes per game, averaging 7.9 points.
Playing for the Lynx and coaching with the Gophers has been a dream come true for the Lakeville, Minnesota, native.
“I’m just really lucky to be able to do that. Not a lot of people can say that they play and coach in the same state where they grew up and where they dreamed of playing and at the college level and at the pro level. It’s been such a fun experience,” she said.
The University of Minnesota also has a special place in her heart as it is where she met her fiancé, Andre Holllins, who was a point guard there from 2011 to 2015. Hollins surprised Banham in early 2023 when he proposed on the court at Williams Arena, where they both played in college.
“Me and my fiancé both played for the Gophers, so it was kind of a full-circle moment,” she said. “He really surprised me, it was perfect. Everyone was like, ‘Of course you got engaged at the Barn.’”
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Playing the free agency field
Banham is a free agent this year after having re-signed with the Lynx for the 2023 season, in which she averaged 5.5 points per game, 1.7 assists and one rebound in 13.6 minutes per game. She ended the regular season shooting 40.2% from beyond the arc in 32 games, which landed her seventh-best in the WNBA among qualified players.
While she loves playing in her home state, she is looking at all of her options this free agency, which begins Jan. 21.
“It’s always a blessing for me to be in Minnesota. I’m going to play the field and see what’s the best fit for me,” she said. “In free agency you just never know where people are going to end up. I just have to see what is going to be the best fit for my game and for my career. I’m going to see what’s going to be a good opportunity for me to get on the court and be a value to that team.”
After her playing days are over, she sees coaching in her future.
“I don’t know to what extent — maybe college, maybe pros, maybe even running my own program,” she said. “I think that would be kind of cool, starting my own gym. So, to some degree, yes, I want to be coaching.”
But for now, she awaits free agency and looks forward to contributing to the right WNBA team for her.