Far more familiar with Williams Arena’s old raised wooden floor than anybody else in the WNBA Finals deciding game, Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen appropriately threw herself across it three times Wednesday.
Her coach called it the kind of hustle that wins championships, which the Lynx did for a record-tying fourth time with an 85-76 Game 5 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks.
They did so in the same tin-roofed arena where Whalen first came to prominence with the Gophers 14 years earlier.
Back then, a broken water main moved her anonymous college team from the cozy Sports Pavilion next door into the men’s basketball “Barn,” a place where their audiences grew from 2,000 to more than 11,000 on their way to the Final Four the next season.
This time, she found herself back in the Barn celebrating another pro title after Target Center’s summer renovation and the Wild’s preseason conflicts at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy moved her and the Lynx back onto campus.
“Unbelievable, just unbelievable,” she said afterward. “I thought it would take an effort like it did. All I’m going to say is never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
She provided the hustle by throwing herself across the arena’s quirky floor. But when it came time to settle her teammates and a deafening hometown crowd, Whalen stood as tall as any 5-9 point guard can and made a play to start the fourth quarter that helped repel the Sparks’ comeback aspirations.
After trailing by as many as 12 points in the third quarter, the Sparks pulled within four points by quarter’s end. That’s when Whalen turned a broken play into a possession she nearly dribbled away before making a short, spinning shot that sent the Lynx back to a double-digit lead with fewer than five minutes remaining.
“We would have liked to have run the play the way it was drawn up, but sometimes it doesn’t happen,” Whalen said.
So she simply made a play and her team was off toward another title with a fourth quarter in which Whalen scored eight of her 17 points and the Lynx withstood a flurry of turnovers in the closing minutes when the Sparks’ defensive turned aggressive and desperate.
“That’s the Wheezy F. Whalen that we know,” teammate Seimone Augustus said. “She’s tough. She has been waiting for this moment. What she did in that possession is what we expect from her in a tough situation. A great player making a great play.”
Lynx owner Glen Taylor invested nearly $1 million into temporary air conditioning to allow his team to play their playoff games in Williams Arena.
“When Mr. Taylor made the decision and commitment, I knew it was going to be special for us,” Whalen said. “I didn’t know exactly how it was going to turn out. I just kind of felt good about it. I felt good about our chances being in this building. I’ve been part of special games here and special runs. This is really special. We owed it to him to give it our best shot, to leave it all on the floor and see what happens.”
Whalen left it on the floor three times Wednesday. Literally.
“Lindsay was so good all game, and we needed her to be aggressive,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “She decided to get to the rim when she could, she went to the floor for loose balls. Plays that win games, plays that win tournaments.”