Noga adjusts her game in the Big Ten
When area basketball fans think of former Parkers Prairie star Sari Noga, they likely think of the gaudy numbers she put up.
The 1,701 rebounds are a state record. The 3,507 points are fifth best all time in Minnesota girls' basketball history. Both are marks that almost certainly will never come close to being touched in the Panthers' program ever again.
"She was a shooter," Brandon-Evansville head coach Dick Simpson said. "She could score from really anywhere. We respected her outside shooting an awful lot."
Simpson would know that as well as anyone. He and his Brandon-Evansville teams competed with Parkers Prairie for the Little Eight Conference title through much of her six-year varsity career. Simpson has more than 500 wins in 36 years as a head coach, but he never did figure out a way to slow down Noga.
"I don't know if we necessarily game-planned for her," he said. "We weren't going to stop her anyway. We just kind of hoped she missed...I think we faced her probably 14 times, and I'm sure we helped contribute to 400 points. We tried to guard her the best we could, but it was more like maybe she'll miss."
Noga's dominance at the high school level helped her accomplish a life-long dream of playing at the University of Minnesota. Now as a junior, Gopher fans haven't seen that same scoring prowess out of the 5'10" guard. Instead, they have seen a player who has accepted her role as a gritty defensive stopper and someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get on the floor.
"I think it's something that came kind of naturally," Noga said. "On my AAU team (North Tartan) I was a big defensive person. My AAU coach developed me into a defensive stopper...I was definitely OK with buying into defense. I would do anything to play, so if I was good at defense, that's what I would do to play."
That attitude has helped Noga become one of the more trusted players in head coach Pam Borton's program. She has started all 23 games this season and is one of two Minnesota players averaging more than 33 minutes a night.
Her overall numbers don't jump off the page. She's averaging 6.8 points per game and 4.8 rebounds. But her role isn't to be a big-time scorer on this team right now.
Noga was stronger than almost everyone she went up against in the LEC. That, coupled with her shooting ability, made her almost impossible to contain with her ability to score from inside and out.
"In high school, I could take whatever shot I wanted, whenever I wanted," Noga said. "You're not worried about getting pulled off the court because that was my role in high school."
She knew things wouldn't come that easy at the Big Ten level. Those same physical advantages she enjoyed in high school weren't always going to be there against this kind of competition. Getting used to that speed and athleticism took some time to adjust to.
Noga accepted that process and figured out ways to make an impact when she couldn't simply out-muscle or out-shoot overwhelmed opponents anymore. That helped her see the court in 21 games as a freshman and get nine starts as a sophomore.
"I had to rely more on my basketball IQ and outthink players rather than out-quick them," Noga said. "Mentally, it's just so stressful. It's a whole other level of being mentally tough. You think in high school, you can make it through a 36-minute game and one turnover might not be as big of a deal as it is here. You have one turnover here, it might lose you the game."
Her attention to detail has helped her become a fixture in the lineup as a junior. Noga played 38 of a possible 40 minutes in what was close to a must-win game for the Gophers against Michigan last Thursday. Minnesota was able to halt a four-game losing streak as Noga finished with nine points, five assists, two rebounds and no turnovers.
Noga feels the offensive ability she displayed on a nightly basis a few years ago is still there. It's just a matter of finding that confidence. She's hitting 38 percent of her field goals and firing at a 35-percent clip from behind the three-point line.
Noga has made the second most triples (33) of anyone on the team behind sophomore guard Rachel Banham. The problem has been finding a consistent stroke night in and night out.
"The games that I have shot 4-of-5 from three or have had good percentages are the games I just go out there and play and I'm in my flow," Noga said. "Then there's games where one shot might seem a little bit off and you start thinking about it. That's kind of frustrating. I know I've had the same success shooting in high school and in AAU. Where is that? There's times where I feel like it's there. It just needs to stay consistent."
Noga hopes to find that confident shooting stroke again before her career is done with the Gophers. Her childhood dream wasn't to be just a name on the roster at the University of Minnesota. She wanted to make an impact on a team that she grew up loving. She is finding ways to do that, even if it isn't as the prolific scorer that so many remember her as.
"I love every minute of it," Noga said. "I love what I pictured as a little girl, people coming up to me and giving me that recognition that I am a Gopher...That always gives me a little bit of a spark to say, 'Keep going, you're doing well.' It's kind of that motivation because I know that there's those same little girls out there who are just like me."