Gophers New Orleans Bound
April 1, 2004
Minnesota became the lowest seed in six years to reach the Final Four Tuesday night, when the Gophers downed Duke, the No. 1 team in the nation, 82-75 in the Mideast Regional Final. Seventh-seeded Minnesota now travels to New Orleans this weekend to square off against two-time defending champ Connecticut in the national semifinals.
Minnesota's meeting against UConn on Sunday will mark the first Final Four appearance for the University ever- male or female- since the 64-team field was introduced.
The Gophers have had quite a season leading up its journey to New Orleans, including their three most recent wins in the NCAA Tournament over No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Kansas State, and No. 3 Boston College. Here is a recap of the Gopher's ride the Final Four.
Two months of perfection
The Maroon and Gold season started the season perfectly, going 15-0, and including a spotless non-Conference schedule. During that time, Minnesota's average margin of victory was a cool 23 points. The Gophers were also crowned champs of Virginia's Cavalier Classic tournament and the team peaked at a No. 6 ranking in the polls.
Their first loss didn't come until January 18th against a tough Purdue squad in West Lafayette.
Rocky Conference Road
Following the loss to Purdue, Minnesota's momentum slowed, as the Gophers also dropped the next two games to Big Ten foes Penn State and Michigan State.
The streak wasn't helped at all when Minnesota's all-time leading scorer and player of the year candidate, Lindsay Whalen, went down in a game versus Ohio State on February 12th. Whalen had fractured two metacarpal bones. It was uncertain at the time just how long the senior would be out, but the injury did put an end to her string of 106 consecutive starts. Without Whalen in the line-up, Minnesota went just 2-3. In fact, after its perfect start, the Gophers finished the regular season winning just five of 12 games.
Minnesota entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 6 seed, and after defeating Northwestern in the first round with Whalen still on the bench, the Gophers lost to Ohio State in the quarterfinals.
One spark to Pam Borton's squad during Whalen's absence was the emergence of junior Janelle McCarville. McCarville had made a name for herself in the Conference with solid play throughout her career. But the 6-2 center showed just how impressive she could be when she recorded the first ever triple-double in Big Ten Tournament history, with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 steals against Ohio State.
A Welcome Back at Williams Arena
On March 21st, after five weeks of sitting on the sidelines, Whalen made a triumphant return to the basketball court in Minnesota's first round victory over UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. In front of 12, 257 fans in Williams Arena, she unleashed 31 points against the Bruins.
The Gopher faithful cheered wildly for their returning star. After Whalen sunk her first basket, the fans erupted when she held up all five fingers on her previously injured hand while transitioning down the court. For Whalen, the move was actually a simple signal to call out the proper Minnesota defense, but to the large contingent at Williams, it was a sign that everything was okay. Considering the results of the past two weeks, perhaps it was both.
In the second game of the weekend, Minnesota easily knocked-off No. 3 Kansas State, 80-61, to advance to the program's second-straight Sweet 16. Whalen recorded 15 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds, while junior Janelle McCarville notched 15 points, 18 rebounds, and five assists.
Cutting Down the Nets
McCarville took over once the team arrived in Norfolk, Va., dominating both Boston College and Duke. In the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, McCarville averaged 22.5 points and 16.5 rebounds, while Whalen poured on 27 points against the top-rated Blue Devils.
"Coach (Pam) Borton said the most aggressive team was going to win and that's the way we've played all year," Whalen said after the win over Duke. "Tonight we just got a few things to go for us and we just played loose and played together."
Minnesota used solid team play and kept its cool through several important stretches over the weekend. In the Duke game, Minnesota held a double-digit lead deep into the second half. But with 5:33 left in the game, a Duke lay-up tied the game at 59 and McCarville was playing with four fouls. Moments later, senior Shannon Bolden then drained a three-pointer from the corner (her third of the game) to reclaim the lead. After the teams traded baskets, Minnesota rallied for five straight points, including a beautiful lay-up by Whalen courtesy of a McCarville behind the back pass. The Gophers sealed the win by hitting 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch.
The result was a Mideast regional championship for Minnesota and a chance to cut down the nets in Norfolk.
The trip to New Orleans should mean even more to the four seniors on the team, Whalen, Kadidja Andersson, Leslie Hill, and Lori Dimitroff. The group has been on their own long journey during their Gopher careers, playing for three different coaches since arriving on campus in 2000.
Pride of Minnesota
With 13 players from the state of Minnesota, the women's basketball squad has become the pride of the state, and senior Lindsay Whalen has become a popular role model for young players.
Over the past three seasons, the Gophers have gone from averaging just over 1,000 fans per game at Williams Arena to over 9,000 during the 2003-04 campaign. Also, sales of Whalen's No. 13 jersey are among tops all-time for Gopher student-athletes, male or female.
When Minnesota arrived back in town after the win over Duke, a couple of hundred fans were there to cheer their team. That number doesn't seem remarkable at first, but consider that the Gopher bus didn't arrive in the Twin Cities until after 2 a.m. Wednesday morning.
The Minnesota-Connecticut semifinal game tips-off Sunday at approximately 8 p.m. CT, just after Tennessee and LSU squares off. ESPN will carry the action.