The Twin Cities sporting public was well-trained in the art of avoiding women’s basketball games at the University of Minnesota when Brenda Frese was hired as the coach.
The Gophers had gone through six consecutive losing seasons. Even the Sports Pavilion, the miniature arena behind the big wall at Williams Arena, looked cavernous when the women had a basketball game.
And then an amazing thing happened: The Gophers, with the new coach, and with sophomore star Lindsay Whalen, started winning. It was decided by boosters that this team needed more appreciation, and a mid-January game with Indiana was targeted for a “Pack the Pav” promotion.
“A water pipe blew up in the Pavilion and that’s when we moved over here,” Frese said.
Yes, they did, and with aggressive promotion and ticket distribution, “Pack the Pav” turned into a crowd of more than 11,000 in Williams Arena. It was on that Sunday — Jan. 27, 2002 — that Gophers women’s basketball gained enough relevance on the local sports scene to draw significant crowds and media attention for a handful of years.
Frese was here only for the turnaround, not for the true rewards offered by Whalen, Janel McCarville and others, leaving those to her successor, Pam Borton. Out of nowhere, Frese took the Gophers to the second round of the NCAA tournament in March 2002, and just as suddenly, she was being introduced as the new coach at Maryland.
Good move for her. She’s won a national title. She’s built a perennial contender.
Back in Minnesota, five seasons ranging from horrid to subpar had restored Twin Citians’ talent for avoiding women’s basketball.
Borton was fired after last season, and athletic director Norwood Teague’s quick search landed Marlene Stollings in Minnesota.
On Sunday, Frese was coaching in Williams Arena for the first time since Feb. 24, 2002 (an 80-72 loss to Michigan State). Maryland and the Gophers were tied for first place in the Big Ten at 3-0.
There was no surprise in this for the Terrapins, being the preseason favorites in their first Big Ten season.
But the Gophers? Once Rachel Banham, the senior scoring machine, blew out a knee at North Dakota on Dec. 10, the assumption was they were headed to a middling finish or worse again in the Big Ten.
That was the assumption from casual followers … and after the previous five seasons, who among us could claim higher interest than that?
And then an amazing thing happened: The Gophers spent the last two nonconference games getting their post- Banham act together, then opened conference play by beating well-regarded Nebraska at home, then at Purdue and Wisconsin.
The result was a crowd announced at 5,468. Sunday’s audience looked that large, and it sounded larger at key points of the second half. The loudest reactions came as the Gophers, down 70-64 with 2:53, scored three consecutive buckets for a 70-70 tie at 1:10.
The last two came from Amanda Zahui B., the tall, strong sophomore from Sweden. AZB can get herself about as fired up on the court as you will see, and, oh my, was she pumped over that tying basket.
Maryland came out of a timeout and Lexie Brown cold-blooded a three. Fifteen seconds later, at 0:32, Carlie Wagner quick-triggered a three for another tie, 73-73.
That quick trigger deal … that’s not hyperbole. Any college coach — and I mean, any — would like to have a shooter who gets the ball away as rapidly and decisively as this young woman from New Richland, Minn.
Maryland decided to run the clock down, as anticipated, and then Brene Moseley, the Terps’ second-half hero, drove toward the lane, turned awkwardly and was awarded with a foul call on Zahui.
There were 2.8 seconds left, and Moseley made two free throws, and two more came in the last second, and Maryland was alone in first place with a 77-73 victory.
Yeah, but how about that crowd, coach?
“It feels like we’re just getting started,” Stollings said. “We want crowds involved like this, but with about 4,000 more.”
Presuming Sunday becomes the norm for quality and ferocity of competition, Stollings will get that before the end of her first season.