Heart of a Champion

The news is all Richard Clarke, all the time, and we’ve done all we can on that front. Frankly, I can’t stand it any more, at least for the moment. So I want to talk about something more cheerful, and the most cheerful thing I know of right now is the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team.
Don’t laugh. Like Deacon, who has made some acerbic comments on the quality of women’s soccer, I am not generically a fan of women’s sports. My appreciation tends to run mostly toward women like Katarina Witt, Anna Kournikova, Serena Williams, and so on. But the success of the Gopher women’s basketball team is a story that everyone, especially conservatives, can appreciate.
Partly because it turns, in large part, on a single individual: the Gophers’ 5′ 9″ guard, Lindsay Whalen. Whalen was a relatively unknown high school player from Hutchinson, a small town about 60 miles west of Minneapolis. In her freshman year, the Gophers were horrendous–as, indeed, they had been for a while. They won one–count ’em, one–Big Ten game. They were one of the most pitiful teams in any sport in the country, and yet, amazingly, they were penalized for violating NCAA rules. The program was a disaster, and their games were attended by a few dozen friends and relatives, a few hundred on a good night.
No one could have known it at the time, but Lindsay Whalen turned out to be one of those rare people who simply will not tolerate mediocrity. Through sheer, indomitable willpower, she raised the Gophers to respectability in her sophomore year, when she was a third-team All-America. Curious crowds began to turn out as the under-manned Gophers started to win after years of futility. New coach Brenda Oldfield was the NCAA coach of the year.
Before Whalen’s junior year, Oldfield left for the University of Maryland. This threw the program into turmoil as successive candidates were interviewed on the eve of the season. Nevertheless, Whalen led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament for the first time. She didn’t do it single-handed, of course; Janel McCarville, a moose with unnaturally soft hands, became one of the top centers in the country. Other talented players began to emerge. But no one doubted that Whalen was the driving force behind the team’s success.
This year, Whalen’s senior season, the Gophers won their first 13 games and were the last undefeated team in women’s basketball. Then, six weeks ago, disaster struck as Lindsay Whalen took a hard fall and broke her right hand. There was a press conference–I was going to say a tearful press conference, except that Whalen is not the tearful type–at which the fractured hand was announced, along with a prediction that Whalen’s career was over. Unless the Gophers performed the unlikely feat of playing deep into the NCAA tournament without her.
The team floundered for the rest of the regular season, going 3-4. Their ranking plummeted and they were seeded seventh in their NCAA tournament bracket. The seeding would have been academic without their star player; but, to hardly anyone’s surprise, Lindsay Whalen returned to action in the Gophers’ first-round game against UCLA on the Gophers’ home court, Williams Arena. Whalen, playing with a brace on her still-recovering shooting hand, scored 31 points to lead the Gophers to an eleven-point victory over the incredibly talented Bruins.
That set up last night’s game against the number two seed, Kansas State. The Gophers played devastating defense from the start, and Whalen (15 points, seven rebounds, nine assists) was mostly content to dish as her teammates lit up the scoreboard. The final score was a 19-point Gopher victory; the game was not that close. Janel McCarville devoured Kansas State’s center, the first team All-America, with a 15-point, 18-rebound, seven-assist night. Fourteen thousand screaming Gopher fans cheered when Whalen left the game with three minutes to play, finishing her home-crowd career in front of roughly fifty times as many fans as had turned out when she was a freshman. (The NCAA, unused to such enthusiasm for women’s basketball, failed to print enough tickets for the games at Williams Arena, and the University of Minnesota had to print more at the last minute to accommodate the crowds.)
The Gophers are now in the Sweet Sixteen and travel to Norfolk, Virginia, for the next round. At some point they will, in all likelihood, lose to a team with too much talent. But the past three years have been a valuable reminder of what a single individual can accomplish through willpower, incessant effort, and a simple refusal to accept defeat. Whalen’s main talent isn’t really as a scorer, but she has scored more points than any University of Minnesota basketball player in history–a group that includes Kevin McHale, Lou Hudson and Archie Clark, among many others.
In the photos below, Whalen celebrates a teammate’s basket, and separates McCarville from an altercation with a UCLA player:
UPDATE by BIG TRUNK: Reader Bob McCarthy writes: “Brenda Oldfield was NCAA coach of the year during Whalen’s sophomore year. It was after her sophomore year that Oldfield left for Maryland. This is Pam Borton’s second year with the Gophers.”
HINDROCKET notes: Another reminder of how time flies. I revised the text to reflect McCarthy’s correction.
DEACON adds: Meanwhile Brenda Oldfield, now Brenda Freese, has led Maryland back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a while, taking them to the second round this year. Although I am a critic of women’s professional soccer and basketball, I’m a fan of women’s college basketball. Unlike the female pros (and the male collegiates) college women generally don’t serve up an inferior version of the NBA. Rather, they emphasize good fundamentals and team ball.


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