Jim Souhan
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The Gophers will play the legendary Connecticut women's basketball program on Sunday at Williams Arena. Lindsay Whalen isn't expected to attend, which is a shame, since, if she wanted to pad her padded résumé, she could claim to be the inspiration for this game and many who will play in it.

Whalen recommended her replacement, Dawn Plitzuweit, to athletic director Mark Coyle when Coyle gave Whalen no choice but to resign last March. It may have been the last civil words spoken between the two. "Hire Dawn" is the way that conversation is known to have ended.

Whalen wanted a quality replacement, even as she was exiting the Gophers athletic department, because she cares about the players she recruited to Minnesota.

Sunday, her star recruits will play against the most accomplished basketball player from Minnesota since Whalen: UConn's Paige Bueckers, who had Whalen's poster on her bedroom wall when she starred at Hopkins.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma recruited Bueckers from a young age, and there are Gophers insiders who believe that, had Whalen retired earlier from the WNBA to coach the Gophers, she would have been the only person who could have kept Bueckers from UConn.

Whalen played her final game for the Gophers in the Final Four in a loss to UConn, ending perhaps the most influential career of any Gophers basketball player ever. Whalen would see Auriemma again.

She starred for the Connecticut Sun in her first years in the WNBA, then improved enough with the Lynx that Auriemma chose her as his backup point guard, behind UConn legend Sue Bird, on the USA teams that won gold at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Whalen's relationship with Auriemma, and Auriemma's desire to give Bueckers a homecoming game, gave UConn a reason to travel halfway across the country in November.

Whalen's ability to transform a lackluster Gophers program during her playing career led to her team playing in and selling out Williams Arena, after the Gophers had been relegated to the small, multipurpose Pavilion.

Whalen was stunned and heartbroken by her dismissal. She took a buyout from the Gophers athletic department, even after Coyle said he expected her to play a role for the department, and she hasn't been seen at her former team's games early this season.

That doesn't mean she's in hiding. "Lindsay's someone who reaches out before every single game,'' Plitzuweit said. "We text back and forth. And I know that at some point in time, she'll come back, and hopefully, it's soon, and hopefully, it will be when we have our alumni reunion, which is later in the season.

"I'm not sure if she's going to be around, but I sure hope that she is. You can speak volumes about what she's done for Minnesota women's basketball. So I have a great deal of respect for her and we kind of laugh back and forth about different things.''

Those "things'' involve the oddity of coaching on a raised floor.

"Are you going to sit on the stool, do you stand, do you kneel?'' Plitzuweit said with a smile. "Those types of things. So I ask for her advice on that.''

Whether this game represents a moment or momentum for Midwestern women's basketball can be debated. Maybe it's both.

Thanks to Whalen's recruits and Plitzuweit's expertise, the Gophers are promising, if still young. Five of the 10 expected starters in this game are from Minnesota, as well as two of the first three players off the Gophers' bench.

The best player in the country — if it's not Bueckers — is an Iowa kid playing for Iowa, Caitlin Clark.

The Gophers, despite their struggles last season, won't be in awe of the moment Sunday. Many of them attended those sold-out games at Williams Arena to watch Whalen, and their most notable foe on Sunday is someone many of them competed against in high school.

In the Class 4A, Section 6 section championship game on March 5, 2020, Wayzata and Mara Braun faced Hopkins and Bueckers in a game attended by Karl-Anthony Towns. Hopkins won, 86-76, in a game featuring 10 future Division I scholarship players.

Bueckers, who has missed time because of knee injuries in her career, texted Gophers forward Nia Holloway when Holloway suffered the same fate last season.

"I think it's just going to be great to be in the building in this kind of a game,'' Holloway said.

Maybe Whalen will pop in to check on her creation.