Gophers not the types to be intimidated in tourney

Seventh-seeded Minnesota knocked off the Mideast Region’s Nos. 1-3 seeds.

Dan Miller

Minnesota’s seventh-seeded women’s basketball team has bulldozed its way through the NCAA Tournament behind the blade of Janel McCarville.

As two-time defending tournament champion Connecticut prepares to play Minnesota in the Final Four on Sunday, it will be trying to figure out what no team in the tournament has been able to do: how to slow down the 6-foot-2-inch McCarville.

She has been dominant, averaging nearly 20 points and 17 rebounds in the tournament. She has overshadowed taller opponents by using her deceivingly quick moves and obvious strength.

“She’s just playing on another level right now,” teammate Lindsay Whalen said. “I’ve said she has the potential to be the best post-player in the country and she has proved that.”

Whalen, who missed seven games before the tournament with two broken bones in her hand, has teamed up with McCarville to give the Gophers one of the best guard-post combinations in the tournament.

But Whalen’s quick and painless return was all but expected.

After being ranked as high as sixth in the nation, Whalen broke her hand Feb. 12 against Ohio State and the Gophers plummeted to No. 24 and finished sixth in the Big Ten conference.

As Whalen returned to the Gophers’ lineup for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, questions buzzed as to how much and how effectively she could perform. But the quick-healing Whalen electrified 13,000 fans inside Williams Arena, scoring 31 points and leading the seventh-seeded Gophers to a 92-81 victory over UCLA.

With many expecting the Gophers not to leave Minneapolis in the tournament, McCarville helped to make sure the Gophers silenced their critics.

She scored 19 points and 17 rebounds in the UCLA game, and dominated Nicole Ohlde against Kansas State in the second round, who many consider the best center in the country.

McCarville scored 15 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, and added seven assists in the 80-61 victory over the second-seeded Wildcats that raised eyebrows and sent the Gophers to their second-straight Sweet 16, which was in Norfolk, Va.

Gophers coach Pam Borton saw her entire team firing on all cylinders.

“All along we didn’t care what our seed was,” Borton said. “We knew that we had a very good team and we were going out to show it, and I think we have gotten better and better through the NCAA Tournament.”

The Gophers’ improvement can be seen especially in players such as sophomore Shannon Bolden and senior Kadidja Andersson who have demonstrated more confident offensive games in the tournament.

After easily handling Boston College, coached by Borton’s friend and mentor Cathy Inglese, the Gophers set up for arguably the biggest game in the program’s history.

Playing top-seeded Duke marked the first time Minnesota had competed against a nationally top-ranked team. But the Gophers didn’t act like it.

“We were very focused and determined before the game,” Whalen said.

Whalen and McCarville showed that to a national audience and the nearly 8,000 fans in Norfolk. They were playing with nothing to lose and a lot of moves. McCarville spun her large but nimble frame past Blue Devils defenders and Whalen hurt their ankles with cross-overs and spin moves en route to Minnesota’s first Final Four.

At about 2 a.m. Wednesday, hundreds of fans greeted the Gophers’ arrival back to Minneapolis at The Barn. As the events began to set in Borton realized something special was happening.

She is expecting a “circus” in New Orleans and so are Minnesota fans, some of whom are paying from $500 to $700 for just a game ticket to the Big Dance.

They’re not the only ones who don’t want the fireworks of the Gophers’ historic season to end.

“This is the time of season where everybody is where they should be and everybody is giving 100 percent every night,” McCarville said.