As the Gophers have progressed over four years, so has senior Lindsay Whalen.

Brian Stensaas

Once the final buzzer sounded Tuesday night at Williams Arena in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament’s second round, few fans opted to leave before Minnesota senior Lindsay Whalen finished a television interview.

They wanted to send their star player off the arena floor for a final time right. Whalen waved in appreciation, flashed a bright smile and hopped down the steps toward the locker room.

It not only extended an already successful season for Minnesota, but the moment also marked the last time Whalen would stand on the court in a Minnesota uniform.

Behind the Gophers’ bench, a fan held a sign that summed up the last four years of Minnesota women’s basketball: “Welcome to Whalen Arena.”

“We wouldn’t be sitting here right now if Lindsay wasn’t back,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said referring to Whalen returning from a hand injury suffered last month. “She makes our team what it is.

“We’re a good team, but she makes us a Final Four contender.”

It’s been a strange, down and up four-year trip for Whalen, who, with 2,232 career points, is the Gophers’ all-time leading scorer.

She came to campus as a four-time honorable mention all-state selection at Hutchinson High School, where she led the Tigers to three Missota Conference titles.

Her 15-point, seven-rebound performance in her Gophers debut against Binghampton in 2000 was indicative to what fans would be treated to over the next four years.

By the time she finished the transition from high school basketball to college, she was second in the Big Ten in scoring her freshman season and made the conference’s all-star team that traveled through Europe.

The Gophers went 8-20 that year, losing 17 of its final 18 games and winning just once in the Big Ten.

Since then, Whalen has not just rolled through the record books. She’s helped turn the Minnesota program into a Big Ten contender despite two coaching changes, a venue move and battling through a possible season-ending hand injury.

Out of the lineup for five weeks with the injury, Whalen returned Sunday against UCLA in the opening round of the tournament and looked strong as ever, scoring 31 points.

“It’s an added benefit to have her back at this point,” junior center Janel McCarville said. “She puts everyone on the team in a good position to score.”

Whalen has arguably been the main reason the Gophers have gone from playing in front of mostly empty bleacher seats at the Sports Pavilion to darn near selling out the 14,625-seat Williams Arena.

Tuesday’s game drew 13,425 pro-Gophers fans.

“It was a great feeling because we won,” Whalen said of her hero’s send-off. “You couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”

Including Tuesday night’s game, in which she knocked down 15 points, Whalen has scored in double figures in all but five of her 110 career games.

People have taken notice.

“She shows great poise and leadership,” said University President Bob Bruininks, an admitted sports fan and father of two former Division I men’s hockey players. “I find her play inspirational.”

Bruininks said he is “an athlete of modest ability” who, like Whalen, spent some time with his hand wrapped in a cast and knows the difficulty of coming back from an injury.

He said he admires Whalen’s determination and sees it as a positive for the school, something that will only help the team in the future.

Her career was one for the ages, not seen around Minnesota since former stars Laura Coenen and Carol Ann Shudlick – both of whom have permanent banners hanging from the East end of Williams Arena.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the next time Whalen stands on the court is when her name goes into the rafters among the Gophers’ greatest.