March madness comes to Minnesota

Both basketball teams are having great seasons, and the women’s team is proving itself to be a perennial national contender.

Only days into the mighty month of March, the University might enter the NCAA basketball championships with a pair of dancers. The men’s basketball team has finished its season strong, winning its last four games, but it might still have to collect another win in the Big Ten Tournament to earn a bid on Selection Sunday.

On the other hand, the fearsome female basketball players who share Williams Arena are a lock for this year’s NCAA Tournament. The women went to the dance stage last year, but this March they look to surge past the competition to the women’s Final Four yet again, while the men are sitting on the infamous bubble.

Last year’s tournament rally, especially the victory that left Duke’s Iciss Tillis in tears, was in a word – mystical. Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen glided down the floor and through the lane with grace, while Janel McCarville bruised opponents on the low block. The Gophers came out of the woodwork and shocked the nation in the same fashion as the volleyball team did just months earlier.

That season, Title IX achieved something in Minnesota beyond its original intentions. Not only were women guaranteed the same rights as men to play collegiate basketball with no discrimination of facilities or resources available, but they received a far better fan base than the men.

I can remember huddling around the television with anywhere from 10 to 25 other people, watching the Gophers stay alive for another round. On campus, the smell of smoke and championship hopes thickened the air as the crowd at Sally’s Saloon and Eatery gathered around the big screens.

By the time they reached the Sweet 16, the Gophers had everyone on the bandwagon. The die-hard fans, the casual fans and the nonfans gathered together and grew to know the team on a first-name basis.

Here’s a conversation between a basketball fan and a casual fan during the Gophers’ tournament run:

Basketball fan: “Give it to Janel, work it inside!”

Casual fan: “Take it easy there buddy, it’s just a women’s game.”

Basketball fan: “Are you kidding me? Have you watched one of these games? This isn’t your high school girls’ team. This is our best chance outside of hockey to win a national championship.”

Casual fan: “Wow, we’re beating Duke? So we’re pretty good, huh?

Basketball fan: “We’re almost in the Final Four, and this time nobody did homework for the players.”

Casual fan: “Oh yeah, I think I had class with the one on the bench.”

Basketball fan: “Which one?”

Casual fan: “The one sitting next to the – oh! Did you see that pass? How did she do that?”

Basketball fan: “That was sick.”

Casual fan: “Dish it out for the three!”

Basketball fan: “Penetrate and dish, we can’t stand around!”

Both fans: “Yeah! Nice shot!”

This season, the Gophers’ fan base has remained strong, and the team is back in solid form as well, ready to make another championship run this month. Minnesota has some new faces and some missing faces, but there has been no loss of production. McCarville and Jamie Broback have led the offensive charge for the Gophers this year, each averaging double figures in scoring.

Ranked No. 15 in the nation, the women have a good chance of securing a four seed in their regional bracket. As a seven seed for the 2004 tournament, the Gophers cruised to the women’s Final Four where they fell to Diana Taurasi and the 2004 champion Connecticut Huskies.

The women’s program has won over the local crowd, and Minnesota fans have a level of enthusiasm that rivals that of Tennessee, Connecticut and the Louisiana schools (Louisiana State and Louisiana Tech).

Playing with excitement and sports-womanship, the Gophers are just one more women’s Final Four, or National Championship appearance away from winning over the hearts of the nation, and stealing the spotlight from the dominant programs of past decades. From the preseason to the postseason, Minnesota coach Pam Borton’s bunch is Minnesota nice.

Mike Durkin welcomes comments at [email protected].