Thirty-eight days before, at Ohio State, Lindsay Whalen had raced to the lane chasing a rebound. Accidentally undercut, Whalen flew through the air, landing hard on her right hand, breaking two bones.
Was the Gophers women’s basketball team’s season, essentially, over? Minnesota waited 38 days that spring of 2004 for an answer:
It was 16 years ago — March 21, 2004 — when Whalen, a soft cast on her hand, ran onto the Williams Arena floor for a first-round NCAA game against UCLA. She had been cleared just days before, had practiced just twice. The second practice, one open to fans the day before the game, stands out in Whalen’s memory almost as much as the game.
The Gophers opened it with a drill where players cut from the wing to the free throw line for a jumper. Catch and shoot. Whalen missed her first three. “And then I made one,” Whalen recalled recently. “And the fans just went nuts.”
Still, her shot was not there. It would take some time for Whalen to figure out her shot with that cast. So, against the Bruins, in front of an announced 12,357 fans, she attacked the rim. Over and over. She scored 31 points, 14 in the final six minutes of the 92-81 victory. She had nine assists. She scored 12 points at the free-throw line, in 14 attempts.
“I just figured, ‘Let me get to the basket,’ ” Whalen said. “I knew I could do that.’’
In a game that featured six players who would one day play in the WNBA, the two teams were tied 79-79 with 90 seconds left. Whalen drove around a Janel McCarville pick and scored. After a UCLA miss, Whalen was fouled and hit both free throws. The Gophers were launched on their way to a run that didn’t end until the Final Four.
“Once we saw Whalen was back, that Whalen was herself, it was going to take a lot to stop us,” McCarville remembered a few years back. “And her.”
Whalen? She remembers the fans in practice, the roars as she was introduced before the game. The game? “Thirty-one and nine?” she asked. “I’ll take that.”