The semifinals are set for Sunday, and the championship game next Tuesday — in between the Division II and III title games will also be played on Monday. I hit the road, a 700-plus mile trek to this year’s Women’s Final Four in Indianapolis for the first time in a dozen years.
It was 2004, a was a magical, unforgettable time for both the longest tenured beat reporter and the Gophers women’s team on their first trek to that year’s Final Four in New Orleans. But actually it began a season earlier in Stanford, California.
It was our first time on the West Coast campus and I witnessed first-hand a Herman’s Hermits hush all over Maples Pavilion when Minnesota smashed the third-seeded, favored host Cardinal in a NCAA second round game. Some called it an upset, but an 8-0 run in the game’s final five minutes sealed the victory, and the Gophers advanced to the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance. The shocked partisan Stanford crowd filed out of the arena that night.
Although the Gophers lost to Texas in the Sweet 16, it set up the team for perhaps a deeper run the next season. “Definitely a great run,” recalled then senior guard Lindsay Whalen, now a three-time WNBA champion point guard.
Tucker Center Director Mary Jo Kane asked her about her recollections during Whalen’s appearance at the Center’s March 22 “Great Conversation” to a packed house and overall crowd at the U-M Humphrey Center.
“Everybody took a step together,” said the Hutchinson, Minn. native of the squad that also featured Janel McCarville and Shannon Bolden among others. “It was our senior year. We started out great, 15-0, doing well and then the Big Ten hit.
“Then I hurt my hand [during a game at Ohio State]. A freshman shoots the ball — I go for the rebound and go for the ball, tumble and fell on my hand. It didn’t look good. That year was crazy — I broke my hand.”
Whalen as a result missed almost six weeks, nearly 10 games and the Gophers struggled in the offering, looking anything but a Final Four bound team. “[We] kind of held it down,” she pointed out.
After a conference tournament loss, “We end up being the seventh seed,” continued Whalen, who practiced once before the NCAAs, then surprised everyone at Williams Arena that night as well as UCLA with a 31-point performance, including 12-of-14 from the line. Her hard driving lay-up scored with 1:30 left gave her team its final lead of the game, and Bolden grabbed a key defensive rebound that thwarted a UCLA attempt and got the ball back with under a minute to play.
Minnesota’s second round game, also at home against Kansas State, wasn’t as close as the Gophers dominated the Wildcats. Whalen only had 15 points in the win, but hit all her 10 free throw attempts along with nine assists.
“We win those two games, and then off to [Norfolk] Virginia,” said Whalen. There they knocked off both Boston College and Duke — two favored clubs in again convincing fashion. “We knew we were going to win. Even against Connecticut [who beat them in the national semifinals], we had a feeling — if [Ann] Strother hadn’t hit that three in the corner, I think we would’ve [won].
“That synergy — J-Mac [McCarville] was playing unbelievable that whole tournament. We were at home those first two games. I didn’t get to play in Senior Night because my hand was broken, so it was cool to play in my last two games at home.
“I look back at it now and it was a crazy time. It was an up and down time. It was a fun year,” recalled Whalen.
And it was fun then for this reporter. Hopefully this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis will be as well.
“Every year at the Final Four definitely reminds of the time. You can’t help but remember some of those times,” concluded Whalen.
Check the MSR for our final March Madness dispatches.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.