For the past five years, when Whitney Tinjum and Bryanna Fernstrom thought of Williams Arena, they associated it with the end of a productive partnership. The former prep teammates said goodbye to one another at the U's ancient arena in 2012, after playing their last game together with Chisago Lakes High School in the Class 3A girls' basketball quarterfinals.
Neither of them expected to team up again, much less at Williams. Even now, months after they reunited as part of the Gophers' roster, they still find it a little hard to believe.
"It's kind of weird, seeing us both here,'' Fernstrom said. "But it's awesome that we both ended up back in our home state.''
The longtime friends transferred to the U last year, giving them one final season together before life separates them again. Tinjum, a fifth-year senior from Stacy, will finish her college career with the Gophers this season after playing for Bradley and Washington State. Fernstrom, a junior from Center City, spent 1½ seasons at Iowa State and sat out a year — as required by NCAA rules — before becoming eligible last month.
Both are making the most of their time with the Gophers, who resume Big Ten play Wednesday against Illinois at Williams Arena. The 6-5 Fernstrom is averaging a team-high 8.2 rebounds and has blocked 17 shots in five games. Tinjum, a 6-1 power forward, is one of the Gophers' most accurate shooters and is averaging 6.8 points and 19 minutes per game.
"It's been such a cool thing, being able to play with Bry again,'' said Tinjum, who has played in all but one of the Gophers' 18 games and has started in seven. "We have such good chemistry together, the kind that takes a while to build with your teammates in college.
"When we stepped on the court for our first scrimmage [with the Gophers], we already had it. It's just been really special.''
That connection has been a bonus for coach Marlene Stollings, who already was sold on their individual talent. Tinjum and Fernstrom are the third and fourth Minnesotans to transfer to the Gophers after beginning their college careers elsewhere, joining a pair of Minneapolis natives: senior guard Allina Starr, who played one season at Auburn, and sophomore guard Kenisha Bell, who spent a year at Marquette.
"Everyone we brought back is a young lady we would have recruited out of high school to stay here,'' Stollings said. "Whitney brings us leadership and experience, and Bry has that prototypical Big Ten size and skill set at the basket. It's been so nice to bring them home, even if we had to do it in a roundabout manner.''
Fernstrom and Tinjum view their truncated time with the Gophers as better late than never. Their earliest college basketball dreams were kindled at Williams Arena, where they attended camps run by former Gophers coach Pam Borton.
When Fernstrom was a freshman at Chisago Lakes, located in Lindstrom, Tinjum — two years older — became a mentor and friend. Both were Miss Basketball nominees during stellar prep careers, and both received recruiting letters from Borton. But neither got an offer from the U.
Tinjum spent the first year and a half of her college tenure at Washington State before moving on to Bradley, where she averaged 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds as a senior last season. Fernstrom played in 46 games at Iowa State, making 37 starts and averaging 9.0 points and 4.3 rebounds.
Midway through last season, Fernstrom — an AAU teammate of Gophers junior Carlie Wagner — decided to return home, swayed by the potential she saw under Stollings. Once she made her choice, Tinjum, a self-described homebody, followed as a fifth-year graduate transfer.
Their return home has drawn plenty of support from the Lindstrom area. Fernstrom said people she never thought would attend a basketball game have been driving to Minneapolis to see them play, and Chisago Lakes coach Craig Walker brought a busload of fans — including the school's current team — to see his former stars make their Big Ten home debuts against Maryland on Jan. 1.
"At the Maryland game, we ran into so many other people who came down,'' Walker said. "The fifth-grade traveling B team. The middle school principal. People who work at the school. Former teammates of [Fernstrom and Tinjum] who had never seen them play in college. And to see both of them in the starting lineup for the Gophers, that was pretty great.''
Even though they will say another goodbye at Williams Arena this spring, Tinjum said she will cherish their brief reunion — and the chance to fulfill a longtime ambition.
"In Minnesota, this is what you grow up with,'' Tinjum said. "You want to be a Gopher. You want to play on this court. To be part of that, and to be able to be here with Bry, it really means a lot.''