Call it ‘New Whalens’

The Gophers hope to stay loose before playing in the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Dan Miller

Lindsay Whalen raised her arms in triumph Tuesday night 47.8 seconds before the final horn of Minnesota women’s basketball team’s 82-75 victory over top-ranked Duke. The win pushed the seventh-seeded Gophers into their first Final Four.

“I think she was just stretching,” teammate Janel McCarville said after the game.

Even though McCarville’s statement was in jest, it was a revealing joke. She illuminated the key to the Gophers’ historic Final Four run, and the attitude they’ll need to continue the party this weekend in New Orleans – by staying loose.

As they have charged through the NCAA tournament, the Gophers have toppled the top three seeded teams in their region by being the more relaxed and aggressive team. They look to keep the same mentality as they face another national powerhouse Sunday in two-time defending champion Connecticut.

“It’s definitely going to be important to stay loose,” Whalen said. “We have to keep the same mindset and focus that we have had this whole run.”

Before the start of the tournament, many critics doubted the Gophers would be able to get past second-seeded Kansas State and out of the second round that was held in Minneapolis.

But the Gophers have silenced everyone, feeding off their underdog label. They have jumped onto the national stage and advanced to their first Final Four with a nothing-to-lose mentality.

“If you look at Duke and how uptight they were, they came out nervous as heck … they took themselves out of the game in a way,” McCarville said.

The Gophers showed their aggressive and fearless attitude to a national audience Tuesday.

Whalen tossed improbable no-look passes to her teammates and embarrassed Duke defenders with ankle-breaking crossovers and TiVo-worthy spin moves.

Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said Whalen’s performance looked relaxed and determined.

“We knew she was going left 99 percent of the time, and we still couldn’t stop her,” she said.

McCarville also showed she had no fear Tuesday, even though after averaging almost 20 points and 17 rebounds in the tournament she would be the main target.

Despite late foul trouble, McCarville helped the Gophers to an early lead as she spun around Blue Devils and grabbed 12 rebounds before the first-half clock hit four minutes remaining.

The Gophers’ supporting cast, which has quietly fueled its tournament run, was just as determined as the team’s two stars in its eye-opening victory.

Minnesota sophomore Shannon Bolden knocked down three timely three-pointers and senior Kadidja Andersson drained fade-away jump shots on her way to 17 points.

Borton said after the game that the Gophers felt no pressure in the locker room before the game.

“These players were loose in their biggest of the year,” she said. “We played like we had nothing to lose.”

Before both games in Norfolk, Va., Borton took the team to a different gym in the area to keep her players relaxed and focused. She plans to do the same in New Orleans.

The team arrived Thursday evening. Borton said she wanted the Gophers to arrive early to adjust to what she knows will be a hyped-up, hectic weekend.

“It becomes a circus,” she said. “I think you have to really block time out for your players and really get some rest and kinda just lay back and make it as normal as possible for the players.”

The Gophers’ players have their own ideas for how they will stay loose during the media frenzy and all the festivities.

“It helps to do a little bit of other things rather than just concentrate on basketball so much,” McCarville said. “We’ll probably go back to the (hotel) room and just hang out.”

Bolden, who will guard arguably the best player in the country in Diana Taurasi, said she also plans on taking time to relax.

“I’ll just sit in my hotel room and watch TV or talk to my roommate,” she said.

Borton said she wants all of her players to take a couple hours each day thinking about something other than basketball. But the Big Dance might be all-encompassing.

“It’s going to be crazy that’s for sure,” Whalen said. “But it’s going to be fun; we’re just going to try to enjoy it.”

If the Gophers can hold on to this attitude, they should fit well in the Big Easy and continue their assault on the tournament.