Women’s hoops wins opening round game

Lindsay Whalen scored 31 points to lead the U past UCLA. Minnesota will play Kansas State on Tuesday.

Dan Miller

Murmurs circulated through the 12,357 on hand at Williams Arena before tip-off of Minnesota’s women’s basketball team’s first game of the NCAA Tournament.

Among the talk was the question of how effective Lindsay Whalen, the Gophers’ all-time leading scorer, would be in her return after missing a month with an injured shooting hand.

Consider the query answered.

Whalen scored 31 points and drove the Gophers to a 92-81 win over UCLA in the first round of the tournament.

Minnesota will play second-seeded Kansas State on Tuesday at Williams Arena in the second round.

“Once the jump ball went up it was just a basketball game, and I have played a million basketball games in my life,” Whalen said. “Once the ball went up it was just time to play.”

Whalen had to play in the final minutes of the game as the seventh-seeded Gophers found themselves dangerously close to being upset by the 10th-seeded Bruins.

She scored 12 points in the final 1:40 of the game out-dueling Bruins’ point guard Nikki Blue. Blue, who led all scorers with 33 points, traded baskets with Whalen in the final minutes of the game.

With 1:54 to play in the game, Blue rolled in a layup to bring the Bruins within one point at 77-76. Whalen answered with a twisting reverse layup.

Blue then converted a three-point play on the next possession to tie the game at 79-79. But Whalen once again weaved her way inside and scored to put the Gophers up for good.

Blue missed a layup on the next play and fouled Whalen, who knocked down two free throws that put the Gophers up 84-79.

Minnesota center Janel McCarville helped Whalen in the second half, scoring 13 of her 17 points in the final period. She also grabbed 14 rebounds.

Gophers coach Pam Borton said before the game she wasn’t sure about how many minutes Whalen would be able to play in her first game back since she broke two bones in her hand Feb. 12.

“I would have never expected (Whalen) to play 37 minutes, but that’s the type of player she is. She’s a special player,” Borton said.

In the first half, Blue scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field. She was able to penetrate the Gophers’ defense and score inside.

Minnesota sophomore Shannon Schonrock drained a three-pointer with 14:01 to go in the first half to give the Gophers a 12-10 lead. She struck again from the opposite corner with 11:37 to push the lead to 17-12.

But Minnesota let UCLA stick around. Blue and the Bruins responded to the Gophers’ runs and trailed by only one point going into the locker room 38-37.

The Gophers started strong in the second half and built a lead after Schonrock hit back-to-back three-pointers to give the Gophers a 51-43 lead with 16:01 to play.

But the Bruins battled back again. Blue scored three consecutive UCLA baskets and stormed back to take the lead 59-58 with 10:24 left in the game.

The Gophers, who give up an average of 58 points per game, tied for their most points given up all year. But the poor defensive effort was overshadowed by the return of Whalen.

“It’s great having a player like that knowing that she’s going to hit big shots,” Schonrock said. “She’ll go to the free-throw line and we know she’ll knock them down. She’ll take up the ball and you know she is going to take care of it. (She) makes everyone more comfortable.”