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Ellsworth girls basketball: Banham makes big impression

Banham (top row, middle) is a former Gophers star and current WNBA player. On Thursday, Jan. 5 she made an appearance in Prescott when Ellsworth played against the Cardinals. Banham said after all the support Lynner and other Ellsworth players have shown for her, it was the least she could do. (Photo courtesy of Jason Janke)

PRESCOTT -- 

Rachel Banham earned the title of all-american at the University of Minnesota and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2016.

When she scored 60 points to lead Minnesota to a double overtime victory over Northwestern, she made an impression on Kobe Bryant, who she met a week before getting drafted No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft.

Kobe said she had “#MambaBlood” as she wrapped up her college career.

On Thursday Jan. 5, Banham solidified the title of idol to the entire Ellsworth girls’ basketball team when she attended its game at Prescott. Though the Panthers lost, 58-53, they took pictures post game with the former star Gophers guard and current rookie for the Connecticut Suns.

Ellsworth sophomore Olivia Lynner has been a big fan of Banham for a long time — it’s a fangirl type thing.

“I went to a lot of her games at the U,” Lynner said. “I think she’s a really good person to look up to. She’s one of the nicest people I know.”

There’s one other thing that sticks out for the Panthers.

“She’s good,” freshman Kaitlyn Nugent said. “Like, really good.”

After that statement, Nugent and Lynner rattled off a bunch of the WNBA player’s accomplishments.

The Gophers retired No. 1 in her honor Jan. 1, an event that drew some of the Panthers to attend.

Through a series of connections, a few of the players were able to spend some time in one of the suites with Banham Jan. 1.

Banham said “offhandedly” that she was going to come to watch Ellsworth play. With that in mind on Monday the girls were buzzing at practice.

Head coach Jason Janke said he didn’t think much of it because he knew how busy a professional athlete can be.

The players had no idea she would actually come to their game.

Lynner played one half on JV and two on varsity against Prescott.

As she was sitting on the bench during the JV game, she casually scanned the crowd.

“I kind of glanced past her after I saw my mom,” Lynner said. “Then I froze, turned around and looked at the varsity (players) behind the bench and said, ‘That’s Rachel Banham.’”

“It was so funny,” Nugent said. “I realized she was there when Olivia turned around and her face was bright red. She couldn’t believe it was happening.

“When everyone realized she was there we all started freaking out.”

Banham was there because she felt like she needed to show appreciation for the support the Ellsworth girls have shown her throughout her time at Minnesota.

The next step was getting to talk to her.

“She talked to us twice,” Nugent said. “It was really cool to hear what she had to say.”

Banham recognized the role she could play in the lives of the Panthers. She took the time to field their questions and delivered a message that included the importance of being a good teammate and person.

“She told me that since I gave her so much support the least she could do was come to one of our games,” Lynner said.

“It was really classy,” Nugent said. “It really shows who she is as a person. She could have been meeting Kobe again, I don’t know. She’s a very busy person, but she decided to come to Prescott, Wisconsin to watch us play.”

In 20 years of coaching, Janke said he doesn’t think he’s seen anything quite as unselfish.

“For this young lady to take the time to spend with young fans, with absolutely zero in return is almost unheard of today,” Janke said. “I could not have been more impressed with Rachel. She was kind, open and honest with our girls and freely gave them her time.”

Jalen Knuteson

Jalen Knuteson started as a reporter in the sports department for the Pierce County Herald in October of 2016. He has spent time working for the Portage Daily Register as a freelance reporter and as a sports assistant for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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