Whalen making big impact for national team

by Andrew Baker

Minnesotans have watched Lindsay Whalen from her days at Hutchinson High School to the Gophers to the WNBA, and on Monday saw her light up the international stage. Whalen, the first Gophers player male or female to play for a USA national team, scored a game-high 16 points in a second-round win over Canada at the FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic. She scored 14 points in three preliminary games to help the USA team advance to that point, and may get the start against Belarus on Tuesday at 5:15 CDT. Whalen was one of 14 players to go through a two-week training camp that included four exhibition games. She averaged nine points and three assists in those games and survived the final two cuts, though her Minnesota Lynx teammate Seimone Augustus didn’t. Perhaps the state’s most prominent women’s basketball icon, Whalen set the Gophers’ all-time career scoring record (2,285), won three All-America honors and was the 2002 Big Ten Player of the Year. Under head coach Pam Borton in 2004, Whalen and center Janel McCarville led the seventh-seeded Gophers to an improbable Final Fourth berth, essentially putting Minnesota women’s basketball on the map. âÄúEverything that weâÄôve accomplished since IâÄôve been here is because of Lindsay,âÄù said Borton, who is entering her ninth season as the GophersâÄô head coach. Borton balked at saying outright that Whalen was the best player she had ever coached, explaining that she did not want to slight the other players. She didnâÄôt have to. âÄú[Whalen] put our program on the map,âÄù Borton said. âÄúShe has made it into one of the elite programs in the country.âÄù McCarville said that when she and Whalen arrived at the University, âÄúsuccess and tradition [were] kind of low.âÄù They didnâÄôt come in intending to resurrect the program, McCarville said, but âÄújust kind of went out and played the game we love, the way we love to play it, and a lot of good things happened from it.âÄù The Connecticut Sun drafted Whalen with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft. She played her first six years as a pro with the Sun, and led the team to two appearances in the WNBA Finals. The Lynx acquired the hometown hero in January through a blockbuster trade billed as one of the biggest in WNBA history, and she averaged 12.6 points and four rebounds this season. Whalen hasn’t played for a national team since winning a gold medal with the under-21 team in 2003, when she was still with the Gophers, but this year’s team has a good shot at a gold medal. Borton said that head coach Geno AuriemmaâÄôs USA team is âÄúabsolutely loaded,âÄù and that she likes their chances in the FIBA World Championship, which is second to only the Olympics in international competition. âÄúAll through the training camp portion I felt like Lindsay kept getting better and better and she was growing on me because of her ability to get to the rim,âÄù Auriemma said. âÄúSheâÄôs strong. SheâÄôs tough. SheâÄôs an extremely physical player.âÄù Auriemma said Whalen distributes the ball and creates opportunities for her teammates, as well as for herself. Whalen is no stranger to basketball in the Czech Republic, having played three seasons with USK Prague during the WNBA off-season. âÄúI think it helps having played in and experienced the different competitions in Europe,âÄù Whalen said. âÄúLearning the style, the way the teams play over here helps when you are playing in international competition.âÄù Whalen said playing for the U.S. team is a positive cap to a rough summer during which her 26-year-old brother-in-law died and the Lynx failed to make the playoffs. âÄúI guess IâÄôve just kept my spirits up and every day came to the USA camp knowing that I was going to work hard and play hard,âÄù Whalen said. McCarville, a former-No. 1 pick now playing for the New York Liberty, said Whalen is an ideal teammate because of her intensity on the court and her positive, laid-back demeanor away from it. âÄúSheâÄôs a clown,âÄù McCarville said. McCarville said she and Whalen, who now play in different WNBA conferences and only face each other twice a year, try to stay in contact via text messages and e-mail. The two played each other in Minnesota for the first time as pros in August. After that game, McCarville reflected on her and Whalen’s tournament run: âÄúI don’t think I’d trade a moment of it. Every day we rose to the occasion to achieve something great for this community, the state, and I was happy to be a part of it.âÄù Related: – Whalen named to USA World Championship team (blog 9/21/10) – ’04 Final Four team reunites (8/10/10) – Whalen back home with Lynx (7/13/10) – Whalen signs contract extension with Lynx (blog 8/12/10)