After being recruited to play basketball at Minnesota, a trio of Metro Detroit players are now doing a little recruiting of their own.
Southfield twins Taiye and Kehinde Bello and Detroit’s Destiny Pitts are trying to make their fourth roommate, Irene Garrido Perez of Spain, an honorary Michigander, bringing her to Detroit for Christmas.
“We’re a really close-knit group and kind of like sisters off the court,” Pitts said. “We watch the Lions when we can, and I even took (Perez) back to Detroit and got to enjoy the Detroit and Vikings game, although that didn’t go the way we wanted to.”
This week’s trip back to the Mitten is all business with a clear directive: Getting No. 18 Minnesota’s season back on track Wednesday night at No. 23 Michigan State.
The Golden Gophers have lost two straight after rattling off 12 straight wins to open the season, which got Lindsay Whalen’s coaching career off to an even more successful start than her iconic playing career.
Right in the middle has been the Michigan trio, featuring Pitts, last season’s unanimous Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and dominant rebounding from Taiye Bello, who gets lovingly toughened up by sister Kehinde every day at practice.
The Bellos, who are juniors, said they were pushed to the game by older brother, Seni Lawal. Lawal, a 2004 Lathrup graduate, played at Oakland and Wayne State and was on the Nigerian national team in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Taiye Bello said she learned rebounding from him. The 6-foot-2 Taiye obviously took good mental notes, as her 12.9 rebounds per game ranks fourth in the country.
“I would say I’ve always been a decent rebounder, I’ve definitely been working on it,” Bello said. “It’s partially effort and partially a mentality.”
Added Pitts: “Nobody can really stop her from getting rebounds. Our coaches get mad at us in practice for not keeping her off the boards, but it’s like, she’s the best rebounder in the country.”
Bello’s 10.9 points per game average is also up from 6.1 last season.
The Bellos were seniors of the last girls basketball team at Southfield-Lathrup, advancing to the Class A regional final before graduating in 2016 as the school closed for good.
They came to Minneapolis together, but weren’t necessarily a package deal at the time, separately being courted by former coach Marlene Stollings.
While Taiye has assumed a starring role, Kehinde is a role player. Taiye credits her sister, who is about an inch taller, for preparing her for games with stiff competition in practice.
“I know what she’s going to do and she knows what I’m going to do,” said Kehinde, who is averaging nearly 2 points and 2 rebounds per game. “If anybody is going to block her, it’s going to be me.”
That hasn’t been happening much on game days.
In a November upset against No. 12 Syracuse, Taiye Bello had a then career-high 20 points and 18 rebounds to topple the Orange in Minneapolis.
“Players like (Bello) win games for you,” said Whalen after the game, high praise from the five-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, who lifted Minnesota to its only Final Four in 2004.
Whalen’s criticism and praise go further as she almost literally stepped from the court to the sideline, playing for the Minnesota Lynx last summer.
“The way she coaches is different than someone who hasn’t played in a long time,” Kehinde Bello said. “She was in this situation last year, so it carries a lot more weight.”
Whalen and the Gophers are now facing their first adversity with the two-game slide.
Taiye Bello scored 24 points on 9-for-9 shooting a 76-60 loss on New Year’s Eve at Michigan, but Minnesota’s Michigan trio combined for just 11 points in Sunday’s 66-62 loss to Illinois — well below their combined average of 25.4 points.
Like the Gophers, the Spartans (11-3) have stumbled out of the Big Ten gates, posting an identical 1-2 start in conference play.
At the Breslin Center, Pitts will be playing on the same court where she won two Class B state championships at Detroit Country Day.
“I think it’s really special to be able to play back home,” said Pitts, averaging 12.7 points per game this season, which is second on the team. “There’s probably a lot of people who will be there (Wednesday) who haven’t been able to see me play since I was in middle school.
“I think it’d be really sweet to top it off with a win, especially against the Spartans.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Minnesota at Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV: Big Ten plus
Records: No. 18 Minnesota is 12-2, 1-2 in the Big Ten; No. 23 Michigan State is 11-3, 1-2
Outlook: Each team takes a two-game slide into Wednesday's game, but remains ranked in the Top 25. ... Michigan State leads the Big Ten in scoring (82.3 points) and is second in assists (20.9 per game) and field-goal percentage (47.9 percent), while Minnesota is fourth in the conference in field-goal defense (35.2 percent). ... Senior Jenna Allen leads the Spartans in scoring (15.9 points, eighth in the Big Ten) and rebounding (7.9). Junior Taryn McCutcheon is tied for the conference lead in assists (5.4). ... Minnesota junior Taiye Bello (Southfield-Lathrup) leads the Big Ten in rebounding (12.9), and is fourth nationally.