McCarville enters stretch run of year in the spotlight

Minnesota plays at Big Ten leader Penn State on Saturday in a huge matchup.

David McCoy

The last time the star player from Minnesota’s women’s basketball team broke her hand, the Gophers went all the way to the Final Four.

Led by Lindsay Whalen’s healed metacarpals and help from Janel McCarville, the Gophers reached heights they’d never known before last year.

So now, with the burden of leading the team on her shoulders, what did McCarville do in response to the plethora of preseason honors she received?

She broke her hand as well.

McCarville looks to continue a triumphant return on a big stage Sunday when 10th-ranked Minnesota plays Big Ten leader No. 22 Penn State (12-6, 7-0 Big Ten) at noon in State College, Pa.

The game is an opportunity for McCarville to do something not even Whalen accomplished – win at Penn State.

“I don’t want to say it’s a must-win,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said. “But Penn State’s probably got the easiest Big Ten schedule this year.”

The list of preseason accolades goes on and on for McCarville: Wade Trophy candidate, Naismith Award candidate, Associated Press All-American, Big Ten player of the year, etc.

While McCarville’s latest decoration – this week’s co-Big Ten player of the week – doesn’t hold nearly the same weight as the others, it nonetheless adds another intriguing angle to an already huge game.

The clash doubles as a showdown between McCarville and Penn State forward Tanisha Wright, the 5-foot-11-inch senior with whom McCarville shares this week’s award.

“Obviously, it’s most likely that the player who does better whose team is going to win,” McCarville said.

McCarville’s consistency in leading the team and dominating the paint has been a huge reason the Gophers (16-3, 6-1) are off to their best conference start since joining the NCAA in the 1982-83 season.

“When you have a presence such as (McCarville) in the middle, you want to go to her right away,” point guard Shannon Schonrock said.

Though that kind of start is impressive, there are few things more impressive than the way in which McCarville and Whalen turned a team that was 8-20 the year before McCarville arrived into a 22-8 team her freshman year.

Similar to high-drafted NBA rookies who want to turn their struggling new team around, the Stevens Point, Wis., native elected to pass up a far better Wisconsin team and opt for miserable Minnesota.

“I knew things couldn’t go much further downhill than that,” McCarville said. “Wisconsin was good, but I wanted to get out of Wisconsin a little bit and just venture away from the family. Minnesota was the perfect place for that, and I had the opportunity to turn the team around, which obviously happened.”

Now McCarville has the task of leading the Gophers back to the Final Four without Whalen.

Sunday’s game should say a lot about those prospects.