After the game, for a long while, Lindsay Whalen lingered on the Williams Arena court.
It was 13 years ago, but she still remembers. Vividly. Sitting in the club room above the court in the old, empty Barn last week, Whalen smiled.
The Gophers women’s basketball team had just surged into the 2004 Sweet 16 by destroying second-seeded Kansas State in front of 13,425 fans, igniting a run that would end in the Final Four.
Less than six weeks prior, Whalen, who had led the Gophers from nowhere to this big stage, rerouting an entire program along the way, had broken two bones in her right hand in a loss at Ohio State. The fear was her season — and her college career — was over. But now with two practices behind her and a soft cast on her shooting hand, she’d returned, then lingered afterward to soak it in.
She’d been there for senior night. But in a cast. Not playing. And not the same. So, after the Kansas State victory, she got a senior night redo.
“I was so thankful to have been able to play in those two games,” she said of victories over UCLA and KSU. “On that court. I wanted to remember it. I remember waving to the crowd as I walked off. It was both happy and sad, because it was my last game there, ever. Until now, I guess.”
When news broke that the Lynx would have to move from Xcel Energy Center into Williams Arena for the WNBA playoffs, there was some consternation.
But Whalen was over the moon.
A Hutchinson native who grew up a Gophers fan, Whalen made the 1996-97 Gophers men who went to the Final Four her team. She had pictures of all the players on her bedroom wall. It was, likely, that team that ultimately led her to Minnesota, which at the time was mired at the bottom of the Big Ten women’s standings.
What she did there, of course, is make history. From 8-22 with one Big Ten win as a freshman, to three straight trips to the NCAA tournament, to the Final Four.
Now, again coming off a broken hand that knocked her out of the final 12 games of the regular season, Whalen is back.
“A beautiful place,” she said. “Lots of wins here. I like the feel of it. The smell of the arena. It has its own distinct smell. You just know you’re in Williams Arena.”
Welcome to the Barn
Another memory: January 2002, her very first game at the Barn.
Until then the Gophers had played in the adjacent, smaller Sports Pavilion. Indeed, for that Jan. 27 game against Indiana, the promotion for the surging Gophers — who were on their way to winning 22 games after losing 22 the year before — was “Packing the Pav.”
But a water line broke, flooded the court, and the game was moved next door.
Whalen remembers the biggest crowd she’d seen was about 2,000. But that day, the 14-4 Gophers drew 11,389 — the largest crowd, at that point, in program history. It was within 568 of the total home attendance the season before. They had to delay tip-off because people were still lined up buying tickets.
“When we ran out onto the court the first time, we were shocked,” Whalen said.
Nerves frazzled, the Gophers opened the game by missing 13 of their first 20 shots before coming back to win. Two-and-a-half weeks later, against No. 7 Purdue in front of 8,639 fans, Whalen scored 41 points in a 73-64 victory.
“From then on it was like we never had less than six or seven [thousand] at a game,” Whalen said. “It was at that point that it all took on a life of its own.”
It is that feeling she can’t wait for her Lynx teammates to experience. Haters say Williams Arena is past its time and needs to go. Whalen says get over it. A brand new practice facility is opening. And the Barn, when it’s full, is something to behold.
“My first thought was excitement,” Whalen said of her returning to her stomping ground. “It was, ‘I can’t believe I get to play here again.’ So many great moments in that place, and some hard ones, too. But to have that experience again, here, it’s pretty cool knowing the whole team gets to play here in this building with a lot on the line and a loud crowd.”
Impact beyond stats
When Whalen was hurt against Atlanta in August — a spiral fracture below her left pinkie finger that required seven screws and a plate inserted during surgery the next day — the impact of her absence quickly manifested.
The Lynx were 22-2 before the injury. In their next nine games they went 4-5 before winning three in a row to secure the top seed for the playoffs.
And while the Lynx’s troubles can’t all be attributed to Whalen being out, the past few weeks have showed that her value goes way past how many points she is or isn’t scoring.
There is a calmness she brings. She has a feel for her fellow starters, where they want the ball, and when. How to ride a hot player or get one going. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said you could see it in practice when she returned Wednesday. Perhaps the best thing about having Whalen is that everyone else can just focus on her own job.
“Lindsay is the all-time winningest player in the history of the league,” Reeve said. “That doesn’t just happen.”
Said Seimone Augustus: “Whalen knows. If Maya [Moore] has it going, we have certain plays we’ll run for her. Points in the paint? She’ll get it to Syl [Fowles] or to me on a post-up. She figures it out in seconds. She and Sue Bird, in my eyes, are the two best in terms of players who do that.”
Whalen, loath to talk about herself, smiled. “Even though whatever I’m averaging this year isn’t one of my career-high years, I know how important I am,” she said. “The starting point guard is the quarterback of the team. It’s important. This year and last year, the way Syl is playing, the point we’re at in our careers, I don’t need to go out and try to score my career average. I’m more helpful in other ways, pushing the pace, play-calling.”
This all sounds very familiar to Janel McCarville, Whalen’s teammate at the U and with the Lynx.
Back in 2004, for weeks the question was: Will Whalen play in the NCAA tournament? Yes. Whalen got in two practices, including one open to the public, where she remembers a crowd of about 1,000 standing and applauding when she made her first basket in warmups.
In front of 12,357 fans on March 21 against UCLA, with a brace that made jumpers nearly impossible, Whalen scored 31 points, 14 in the final six minutes. Seven seconds after UCLA tied the score at 79 with 90 seconds left, Whalen roared around a McCarville pick for a twisting layup, putting Minnesota up for good.
“Once we saw Whalen was back, that Whalen was herself, it was going to take a lot to stop us,” McCarville said. “And her.”
Two days later the Gophers whipped a Kansas State team shell-shocked by the crowd. It was never close. Could her comeback this time have a similar effect?
She left that Atlanta game at the X, had a quick bite, went home and was up in time to get to Rochester for a surgery that has left an inches-long scar down the back of her hand. It was a rush from the start to get back into the action.
Grit and leadership don’t show up on a scoresheet, and she has both in spades. Always has. When Gophers coach Brenda Frese left Minnesota for Maryland after one season, amid the hand-wringing, it was a teenage Whalen who sensed what was needed.
“I don’t think she played any minutes this year,” Whalen said to the press. “We’re the people who got her this contract, we’re the ones who got her all the rewards.”
Recalling that, Whalen said: “Had to calm the team down. Tell the fans we’d be OK.”
How much longer?
Lots of time has passed for Whalen, 35, since then. When talking about how long she wants to play, it sounds as if she has a few more memories to make.
“I talked to Jamal Crawford the other day and he’s 37,” Whalen said of the newly acquired Wolves player. “So I was like, ‘OK, I have a bunch more years then.’ ”
But seriously: “As long as we’re all together, healthy, as long as it doesn’t hurt to play, I’ll keep playing as long as I can,” she said.
But that’s a decision for another day. Right now she’s focused on the playoffs. On her return to Williams Arena. This week, while remembering all the big games, she also reflected on all the hot summer days when she’d let herself into the sweltering building to shoot jumpers for hours.
On Tuesday, Whalen will be back at the Barn, playing a WNBA playoff game under the banner of her retired Gophers jersey.
And that’s pretty cool.
Said McCarville: “It’s a step down from some of the star-studded arenas pros play in. But, for a kid from Minnesota like Whalen, to have a chance to go back to the Barn, I’m down with that.”