There is a reason Lindsay Whalen finds it so easy to talk about Sara Scalia.
And it's not just because Scalia has started nearly from the moment she joined the University of Minnesota women's basketball team in 2019. Or because she — along with teammate Jasmine Powell — were named to the Big Ten all-freshman team last year. Or that Scalia endured weeks of rest with a leg injury last fall and has played through a separated shoulder this winter while being one of the team's most important players.
That's all part of it, of course. But maybe not the main thing: Scalia was Whalen's first recruit, and that has bonded the two.
Scalia, then at Stillwater High School, was the first player Whalen called after being hired to be Gophers coach in April 2018. Whalen, new to the recruiting game, distinctly remembers the call. "We probably said two words,'' Whalen said. "I didn't know what to say. We talked for maybe a minute. Seriously, it was like, 'How are you? How's it going? How's your family? What's for dinner?' "
Scalia visited a week later. A couple of weeks after that Whalen — still with the Lynx — was on a nighttime bus ride back to the cities after losing to Washington in a preseason game in Des Moines when her phone rang. It was Scalia, committing to the Gophers.
So, she's the first. "I think about that sometimes,'' Scalia said. "To me, it means a lot. I grew up watching her play, admiring her game."
Said Whalen: "She was the first recruit that believed in us, and in me as a coach. And look at her now, what she's doing.''
Becoming a leader
Despite the injuries Scalia is second on the team and 20th in the Big Ten in scoring (15.0 ppg). She is fourth in the conference in three-point shooting percentage (34.7) and third in threes made per game (2.9).
Lately, it's been even better. Scalia has scored in double figures in nine straight games. Over the past six, as the Gophers went 4-2, she has averaged 18.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists, going 22-for-44 on threes (40%). She had a career-high 30 points and six threes in a victory over Purdue. Last Wednesday against Illinois she started the game 0-for-6 in the first half. But she came out firing in the third quarter, scoring nine points on three three-pointers — two of which were pullups on the break — as the Gophers surged to a 29-pont lead. The Gophers offense struggled down the stretch of that game, which makes Scalia scoring all 20 of her points in the final two quarters of the 10-point victory — half the team's total — that much more important.
"I'm trying to step up as a leader,'' Scalia said. "Last year, I barely ever even talked.''
She and Powell have been paired since early last season. With every player being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of COVID-19, there is a good chance the two of them — best friends on the team — will play together for five seasons. "We had good freshman years,'' Scalia said. "You keep growing from there. This year has been honestly crazy, but we're still working together.''
Playing through injuries
Already a legendary gym rat, Scalia worked extra hard last summer to be in her best shape. Then, in August, she started feeling some pain in her leg. An MRI showed she was close to a stress fracture, and Scalia was told to rest. "The longest I'd ever been without playing the game,'' she said. "It was one of the lowest times.''
Scalia got back in time to get in two practices before making her season debut in the Gophers' Big Ten opener against Michigan State on Dec. 6. By the time the Gophers played at Wisconsin on Jan. 3 she was starting to feel good. She had 11 points in the first half. Then, early in the second, trying to get around a pick, she and a Badgers players collided, and Scalia separated her right (shooting) shoulder. Three days later, after a shot to numb the pain, Whalen had Scalia come off the bench against Iowa, determined to limit her minutes. She played 35 minutes and scored 18 points. The shoulder kept her out of just one game. And, in recent days, she has felt as close to 100% as she likely will all season.
"This is my first year having injuries,'' she said. "I guess I've learned to stay strong, to keep going.''
Said Whalen: "She will do anything to get on the floor. Anything. In this day and age, you don't see that. We have some tough women on this team. Flat out, that's what it is.''