Gophers leave a definite impact

Though the program will move on, this year will linger in the minds of those involved.

Dan Miller

NEW ORLEANS – The story was like 6-foot-2-inch Janel McCarville’s deceptive ability to dunk a basketball.

Culminating in a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota’s women’s basketball team slammed its way into the spotlight by grabbing different audiences throughout a storybook season.

Hundreds of fans showed up at Williams Arena at 2 a.m. Wednesday to welcome the Gophers home and celebrate the team advancing to its first-ever Final Four. More than 850 fans made the trip to New Orleans, and Minnesota was involved in a significant ratings leap for ESPN’s coverage of the Final Four.

So what is so attractive about the Gophers? Their success? Their underdog tournament story? Their magnetic personalities?

All of the above, and then some.

The Gophers athletes have made an impact on many levels and have helped an increasingly popular sport earn legitimacy in Minnesota and elsewhere.

But for Minnesota’s outgoing senior and all-time leading scorer Lindsay Whalen and the rest of the Gophers, the experience is what first comes to mind.

“It’s been a lot fun,” Whalen said after returning to Minneapolis on Monday. “You can’t really put into words the past four years and what we have been able to accomplish.”

Next season, Whalen will be playing professional basketball, and McCarville will be looking to build on this year’s success in her senior season.

But neither the players nor the state will soon forget the season that culminated in a historic turnaround of the school’s women’s basketball program.

It was only three years ago that the team was 8-20 overall, 1-15 in the Big Ten and could hardly draw 1,000 fans to games at the Sports Pavilion attached to Williams Arena. This season, the exciting style of Gophers basketball drew an average of 9,866 fans per game at The Barn. That figure ranks eighth in the country.

But before many jumped on the Gophers bandwagon during the tournament run, clouds of doubt threatened the once-blue skies of the team’s season.

“We had some adversity going on,” senior Kadidja Andersson said. “We did the most out of what we had.”

Coach Pam Borton said she had to wait five and a half weeks to figure out the reason Whalen broke two bones in her hand late in the Gophers’ season.

But after losing three of their final five games, Whalen returned for the first round of the NCAA Tournament and Borton found her answer.

A crowd of 12,357 at Williams Arena saw the quick-healing Whalen return to score 31 points in a 92-81 victory over UCLA in the first round of the tournament. What was more impressive in the following games was how every player on the team looked more confident and re-energized.

The fearless Gophers made a charge that knocked the first, second and third seeds in the Mideast Region out of the tournament and set up a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four. Two-time defending champion UConn finally upended a relentless Minnesota team 67-58 Sunday night.

But the Gophers said they ended the season with the same kind of play that characterized them throughout the tournament.

“We left everything on the court,” co-captain Shannon Schonrock said.

Borton said Monday that this attitude was revealing of her players and why the Gophers had such a successful season.

“It’s a testament to the whole team, and the players, and them believing in themselves,” she said.