The game could not have gone better, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said.
She wasn’t just talking about beating the Washington Mystics at Target Center, which the Lynx did, 88-83. Or about ending a three-game losing streak before heading into the playoffs — the Lynx (18-16) will play a single-elimination game at Los Angeles on Tuesday.
She mostly was talking about Lindsay Whalen.
Officially, the Lynx’s final regular-season game Sunday was Fan Appreciation Night. But every fan in the arena — all 13,013 of them (note the two 13s in that number … a coincidence, right?) — knew it was really something else:
Her retirement looming when Minnesota’s season ends, Whalen played what could have been her final home game.
This is what fans came to see. This was why Reeve returned Whalen to the starting lineup, why all the players warmed up in special T-shirts commemorating the event. Why Whalen was the last of five starters introduced as the fans roared.
And it was why Whalen played almost all of the fourth quarter, keying the surge that brought the Lynx the victory.
“That’s the way we wanted it to end,” Reeve said. “And we would like nothing more than a chance to come back here.”
Ultimately, everything Whalen did Sunday was, well, vintage Whalen. She scored 10 points with six assists, five rebounds and four steals. She had four points and two assists in the decisive fourth quarter. After the game, in a hastily set-up celebration on the Target Center floor, with her family, both her WNBA coaches and her teammates, Whalen cracked jokes, riffed on Taco John’s, thanked just about everybody in the building and proved that if this coaching gig with the Gophers doesn’t work out, she’s available to emcee celebrity roasts.
“That’s how she is,” Seimone Augustus said. “That’s how she’s been. It’s only right she went out the way she wanted to.”
But seriously: “Thank you, guys,” Whalen said, basically, to all the fans in the building. “And just keep supporting, keep turning us on. Hopefully you’ll see us back in a week or so.”
The game meant nothing in the standings for the Lynx, and when the Mystics found out at halftime that they couldn’t rise to the second spot in the league, it really didn’t matter to them, either. Washington coach Mike Thibault — Whalen’s first WNBA coach in Connecticut, whose daughter will coach with Whalen at the U, who sported a University of Minnesota tie all night — rested his starters in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Whalen helped the Lynx win.
The Lynx used a 13-0 fourth-quarter run to take a 78-69 lead and finished the game off, giving them a 9-8 record at home this season.
But here’s the best part: Whalen was instrumental in that run while winning her 323rd WNBA game.
With 8:20 left in the game she hit a three-pointer that put the Lynx up for good at 70-69. Later in that run, Whalen went to the ground for a loose ball, getting it to Temi Fagbenle for a basket and a 76-69 lead.
Finally, with 1:09 left, Reeve took Whalen out of the game as the fans cheered. Whalen hugged Reeve, then assistant coach Shelley Patterson, then teammates Augustus, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles.
Fowles finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Her final rebound, off a Cecilia Zandalasini miss, gave her 404 for the season, one more than the WNBA single-season record set by Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones last season. Afterward, she said none of that mattered.
“I dedicated everything to Wheezy,” Fowles said of Whalen. “I’m not worried about the record right now. It was all about Wheezy.”
That was the mantra. “We wanted to send her out the right way,” Augustus said.
And they did.
Then came the celebration. Thibault talked about how Whalen, perhaps more than any player he’s ever known, had the ability to enjoy the journey of her career. Reeve joked about how after being called old the last five years, Whalen will become one of the youngest coaches in Division I basketball before tearing up for the umpteenth time this week. “Lindsay, I want to say thank you, for all you’ve been,” Reeve said. “There is so much.”
And then, Whalen.
She thanked her sister for cutting short a birthday trip to be in town. Thanked the team for the special T-shirts. “I’ve played this game for 15 years, and I finally got this T-shirt,” she joked. She thanked Gov. Mark Dayton for declaring Sunday “Lindsay Whalen Day” in Minnesota and said she’d want another when the Gophers won a national title. She thanked Thibault and Reeve and her teammates.
“It’s been great,” Whalen said. “It’s been wonderful.”
Lynx 88, Washington 83
WNBA playoffs, first round: Lynx at Los Angeles, 9:30 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2)