Whalen brings familiar face, memories back to the Barn

The Gophers are excited to prove themselves this year under a Hall of Famer’s watch.

Coach Lindsay Whalen watches a play intently at the Gopher womens basketball practice on Monday, Oct. 9, 2018 in the Cunningham Basketball Performance Center.

Tony Saunders

Coach Lindsay Whalen watches a play intently at the Gopher women’s basketball practice on Monday, Oct. 9, 2018 in the Cunningham Basketball Performance Center.

by Babatunde Jinadu

The Minnesota women’s basketball team began their first official practices of the season earlier this month. A familiar face is back on the sideline for the first time since 2004.

There has been a rise in season ticket sales this offseason — a jump of 1,100, to be specific. The cause for excitement is the hiring of Minnesota hoops legend Lindsay Whalen as the team’s head coach, following the departure of Marlene Stollings in April.

For several months following her hire, Whalen managed to balance duties between playing for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and coaching the Gophers at the same time. After retiring as a player in August, Whalen is now ready to turn her whole attention to coaching.

As a player for the University of Minnesota from 2000-2004, Whalen became Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer until Rachel Banham unseated her in 2016. The average attendance at women’s basketball games rose to nearly 10,000 spectators by the end of Whalen’s collegiate career.

Whalen averaged about 20 points per game during her collegiate career. Minnesota missed the NCAA tournament her freshman year, but the team made it to the NCAA Second Round her sophomore year, the Sweet Sixteen in her junior year and the Final Four in her last season.

Whalen reflected on what has changed and what has stayed the same in the 14 years since she played for the Gophers.

“I didn’t have a car when I was here, I had a bike. So I’m driving … every day through the traffic. That’s one difference — I don’t have to bike and walk through the rain and cold.”

While some things have changed for Whalen in the years since she led the Gophers, one thing has not.

“A lot of things are different, but the goal is the same — trying to compete in the Big Ten, get to the [NCAA] tournament and make some noise” said Lindsey Whalen.

As one of her first decisions as a coach, Whalen plans to move the team away from the use of a zone defense in favor of playing a man-to-man scheme. Redshirt senior Kenisha Bell had high praise for the decision.

“I think this is the best thing to do,” Bell said. “Last year, we struggled with 2-3 zone, and I think we could have beat more teams if we weren’t playing a 2-3 zone defense. In [high school], all we played was full court man-to-man or half court man-to-man. Being able to get back to that, I think it will be more fun.”

Conversely, coach Whalen has already come to appreciate Bell’s feel for the game, and her potential to have a professional career in the WNBA or overseas.

“Every practice, she’s trying to bring something different. She’s trying to reach a goal,” Whalen said. “When I started taking practicing at that level — where I almost treated it game-like — was when my game … went to another level.”

This year’s team has lost an important player to graduation in Carlie Wagner, the third all-time leading scorer in team history. 

It will be tough for the team to fill the void left behind by Carlie Wagner’s departure. Wagner was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx with the final pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, and is now playing professionally overseas. However, the Gophers remain optimistic they will be able to grow from their successes last season.

Practices will continue for the team ahead of their Maroon and Gold Showcase on Oct. 20, where the team will take on a male scout team coached by some of Lindsay Whalen’s former WNBA teammates.