The picture is part of a montage in Lindsay Whalen’s office.
Center court, Norfolk, Va. March 30, 2004. Just 4.6 seconds left in the Gophers’ regional final victory against top-seeded Duke, with Whalen about to go to the line for two, final free throws.
Whalen holding the ball she had just rebounded, like she didn’t want to let go. Janel McCarville, behind her, right arm wrapped tightly around Whalen’s neck, not letting go either.
“That was the culmination of it all,” Whalen said last week. It’s been 15 years, and the memory has aged well. “We’d made it to the Final Four. I was going to the line, up five. It was the culmination of everything we’d done. That was the symbol of what the team was about. We did it together.”
This is why, pretty much from the moment she took over the job as Gophers coach in spring 2018, Whalen has been thinking about closing that circle. Sunday, it will happen. Before the Gophers host California Davis, with McCarville expected to have flown in from Sweden, with many of the players from that 2004 Final Four team in attendance, McCarville’s No. 4 banner will be raised to the Williams Arena ceiling.
“It’s time,” said Whalen, who had her No. 13 raised and retired in 2005. “It is definitely time. She had such an impact on the university. I mean, that Final Four changed all of our lives. After Sunday she’ll be where she belongs.”
Memories don’t fade
McCarville is a player-coach for a women’s team in Stockholm. Her team had a game Friday night. That was to be followed by a day of travel back to Minnesota.
But before she traveled across the world, she walked down memory lane. A while back a friend sent McCarville a highlight reel of that Gophers-Duke game. She watched it and nearly drowned in nostalgia. Whalen had 27 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals in that victory. McCarville scored 20 points with 18 rebounds and a team-high six assists.
“It was like yesterday,” McCarville said.
All those points. McCarville’s pass from the three-point line to a streaking Whalen for two. That memorable play, with 2:21 left and the Gophers up four, when Whalen fed it to McCarville in the post, then cut to the hoop, receiving a no-look bounce pass and scoring.
Current Gophers assistant Kelly Curry (nee: Roysland) — a freshman reserve in 2004 — remembers that as the moment when the Gophers broke the Blue Devils. Pam Borton, then the Gophers coach, said that was the first time the two had ever run that play — evidence, she said, of the duo’s connection.
“They were three steps ahead of everyone else on the court,” Borton said. “And their skills complemented each other so well. They were a match made in heaven on the court.”
It happened quickly. Whalen had endured an 8-20 freshman season. That was followed by a new coach, Brenda Oldfield, and the arrival of a freshman named McCarville from Wisconsin.
“We instantly had a connection,” Whalen said.
Both were from small towns, had come to play ball in the city. Both lived the game. “From the start we were able to read each other, help each other improve,” McCarville said. “It just blossomed from there, for the most part.”
The Gophers made the NCAA tournament the next year, after which Oldfield bolted for Maryland and was replaced by Borton. In spring 2003 the Gophers made the Sweet 16. A year later, the Final Four.
To McCarville, the friendship has deepened over time. Back in college, she was living in the moment, maybe not appreciating everything.
The two stayed close. One winter, when both were playing in Europe, Whalen’s team came to play McCarville’s. The two — along with McCarville’s father — hung out for a night, laughed, went at it on PlayStation, ordered pizza. It was just like college.
McCarville drove Whalen back to her hotel in a tiny two-door Fiat, the two laughing all the way. “I called it the lady bug,” McCarville said. “This little, red bug-looking thing. It wasn’t so reliable.”
If Whalen seemed more impassive and McCarville more emotional on the court, here’s a secret from Borton: Off the court both were kind of goofy.
Keeping it light, Borton said, was the best way to deal with the pressure. Curry said the two had such confidence the team felt it would win every night. That Duke game, in particular, Curry said there was an aura around the team.
If Whalen was the fearless attacker of the rim, McCarville was years ahead of her time, a stretch-five with a guard’s passing ability in a center’s body. Minnesota fans would get a replay of that when McCarville and Whalen helped the Lynx win the WNBA title in 2013.
“They took ownership of the team, win or lose, good, bad or ugly,” Borton said. “They took responsibility and ownership that whole season.”
They needed each other. Whalen loved McCarville’s swagger. She had a knack for reeling Whalen back when she’d gotten too wrapped up in a bad game or a bad situation. McCarville will never forget Whalen, back after weeks off with a hand injury, returning to play against UCLA in the first round of the 2004 tournament.
“I was the yin to her yang,” McCarville said. “At the U. With the Lynx.”
That’s why that image of the two at the end of the Duke game still resonates for Borton, too. “I don’t even have the words for that picture,” she said. “That was friendship, trust, loyalty. That was everything. It was, ‘Look at what we just did.’ ”
McCarville’s dad will be there Sunday, one of about 50 family and friends.
A number of former players will be there, too, including Shannon Nelson (nee: Bolden) and Shannon Swanson (nee: Schonrock), who started alongside McCarville, Whalen and Kadidja Andersson on that Final Four team.
In Gophers women’s basketball history, McCarville stands seventh in scoring (1,835), first in field goal percentage (58.2), second in rebounds (1,206) and blocks (196). A center, she is third in steals (273). After Whalen graduated, McCarville took the Gophers back to the Sweet 16 in 2005 before being the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft that year.
Her playing days winding down, McCarville’s interest in coaching is on the rise, and she said she’s excited to see where that passion goes.
But that’s looking ahead. For one weekend, she and Whalen, and their old teammates, and the fans, can look back as they look up in the rafters and see the two old teammates together again.
It should be fun. Whalen had a McCarville highlight reel made up to show to her team so they’d realize the importance of Sunday’s pregame ceremony, where that Gophers-Duke hug could be re-created.
Even on the phone from Sweden, it was clear this ceremony meant a lot.
“I guess I can say I’m proud it’s going up,” she said. “I’m happy it’s finally happening. Once it’s up there, it’s a part of Gophers history forever.
“It seems like this is the cherry on top of my career.”