On Feb. 7, a record crowd of 14,363 poured into Williams Arena to see Lindsay Whalen and Minnesota’s women’s basketball team tip off against then-No.5 Penn State.
Little did they know the Big Ten showdown at the Barn would wind up being Whalen’s last at home in a record-setting collegiate career.
In one fateful fall Thursday, the future of Minnesota’s women’s basketball team’s most anticipated season took a staggering blow.
In a fight for a loose ball in Columbus, Ohio, Whalen jumped, had her legs taken out from under her and fell on her right shooting hand.
She walked off the court and iced the hand for the rest of the game on the bench. Whalen underwent X-rays on Friday morning. Doctors told her she had two broken bones in her hand and would be out at least a month – but to prepare for being out six weeks.
That will be late March, and would mean the Gophers would have to advance to the NCAA tournament regionals for a Whalen return.
“This is devastating to everyone involved in the program, to the fans, to the state of Minnesota,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said. “But she’s got a lot of basketball left in her. If we get to the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight she’s going to be playing, if not then she’ll be playing in the WNBA.”
For the past four years, Whalen has been the poster girl for a program that once struggled to average 1,000 fans a game to one that now ranks seventh in the nation in attendance.
It was obvious Friday that Whalen and the Gophers were trying to prepare that she will not return to basketball in a Minnesota uniform.
“The best thing we can do right now is prepare for the worst,” Whalen said with her arm inside a sling and a black sweatshirt.
It’s hard to imagine the Gophers without Whalen, much less winning without Whalen.
In her career at Minnesota, Whalen has become the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,186 points. This season, Whalen is leading the Gophers with 21.4 points per game.
But the Gophers have to learn to be without her. Five games remain before the Big Ten tournament and the postseason.
The Gophers did outscore a red-hot Ohio State team in the second half last Thursday and it might prove as positive memory for the Whalen-less Gophers.
“We played hard and aggressive, and it gave us some confidence,” co-captain Shannon Schonrock said.
Borton said everything will change as the Gophers will have to make up for one-third of their scoring and compensate for a bench that will be dried to two.
“We’re going to have to play a little differently,” Borton said. “We’re not going be able to play man-to-man for 40 minutes a game and we’ll have to find spots in games where we can rest people.”
The Gophers will have to have everyone on the team step up.
Freshman Kelly Roysland, who got her first start Sunday, will have her role change the most.
“To lose Lindsay is very disappointing and shocking,” Roysland said. “But she told us she has all the confidence in the world in us.”
After beating Illinois 63-54 Sunday, the Gophers showed a promising start to their post-Whalen Big Ten stretch.
“We have to move on and get stronger,” Schonrock said. “I think we’ll be all right.”