When the Gopher women were ‘on fire’

Shannon Bolden Nelson
Submitted photo

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Any Final Four run, as impressive and somewhat magical as it can be, often finds its roots planted in the season or seasons before the campaign in question.

The Minnesota Gophers women basketball team a year before its 2003-04 first-ever Final Four run reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2002-03. Then they checked off 15 straight victories to start the following season before senior star guard Lindsay Whalen suffered an injury, a broken right hand that many feared would be season-ending for player and team alike. 

But Whalen later returned, and the Gophers picked up where they left off pre-injury—on a roll.

“I think we think as a team. We always believed that we were a team that could make a run like that,” recalled Shannon Bolden, then a Gopher sophomore guard/forward from Marshall, Minn. “I knew there [were] so many questions when [Whalen] went down with that injury. We were having such a good season.

“I think it created opportunities for players to grow in their roles and grow their roles,” continued Bolden, the 2002 Minnesota Ms. Basketball, two-time Player of the Year who scored over 2,000 points at Marshall High School. But at Minnesota, the young lady became a defensive stopper, assigned to guard the opponent’s best player each game. 

“When Lindsay returned, we were just playing at an even higher level. We had Lindsay back and that gave everybody confidence.” 

With Whalen healthy, the Gophers’ postseason run rolled over UCLA and Kansas State in the first two NCAA rounds at the Barn, then smashed Boston College and top-ranked Duke in Norfolk, Va. before falling to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Final Four semifinals in New Orleans. And the MSR witnessed it all in person.  

“We just kind of rolled them on our home court,” said Bolden. “I still remember that Kansas State game in the second round. We couldn’t miss, we were on fire.”

Perhaps Bolden’s finest moment as a lock-down defender came when she held Duke’s Alana Beard to 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting in the Elite Eight finals that earned the upstart and underdog Gophers a trip to New Orleans. “They felt like they had to win, and we were able to play looser. We also knew that in everybody else’s eyes we were the underdogs. It allowed us to play a little bit looser, more relaxed.”

The UConn game, however, was a physical battle. “I remember there being a dry stretch in that second half toward the end,” bemoaned Bolden. “We were getting decent looks but the ball wasn’t falling, and it wasn’t for them either.

“If we can just get one of those shots to fall…,” Bolden had hoped. “It was one of those situations where whoever hit the next shot is going to be the team that has momentum that’s going to carry them through the end of the game.” A made three-pointer by Connecticut “was just a backbreaker that we couldn’t overcome.” 

Now married and mother of two, Shannon Nelson is the women’s basketball coach at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, where she is the school’s winningest coach, won a national championship in 2014, two national runners-up finishes, an eight-time coach of the year winner, and 2014 NJCAA Division III Coach of the Year since being hired in 2010.  

She plans to be in town for this year’s Final Four, and the Gophers’ only Final Four run nearly 20 years ago remains as fresh as ever for her.

“It is a little bit cliché, but it’s so true,” she said.  “It’s relationships and camaraderie with my teammates. It was part of wanting to continue that season and continue to win…to be able to play with my teammates for another few days. We had so much fun… [It] will always bring a smile on my face when I think about it.”