The Final: Minny Miracle
Once upon a time, the University of Minnesota was a scandal-plagued, one-sport school. A bunch of girls have changed all that
By John Walters
Not so long ago, the list of Minnesota's legendary babes read like this: Mary Tyler Moore, Winona Ryder, Marge Gunderson, Jane Russell (ask your grandpa), Paul Bunyan's blue ox and maybe Prince. But that was before the University of Minnesota sent three different distaff teams to Final Fours in the last four months. Now, Minnesota's babe quotient is beginning to rival its lake quotient.
It all began back in mid-December when the Golden Gophers women's volleyball team, which had opened the season 0-4, advanced to that sport's Final Four. Minnesota lost to eventual national champ USC, but, among other plaudits, Paula Gentil was named a second team All-America after setting a Big Ten single-season record for digs, with 656. Then again, isn't digging what Gophers do best?
As it turns out, no.
For, in the early winter, the women's hockey team was skating to a 12-0-1 start. The women's basketball team was even better, opening up 15-0.
The hockey team's leading scorer was home-grown (Brooklyn Park) forward Krissy Wendell, who previously had been one of five girls to play in the 1994 Little League World Series; she later earned a hockey silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The hoops team is also led by a native, guard Lindsay Whalen (Hutchinson), who is more popular here than July.
Three years ago, when Whalen was a freshman, the Gophers drew 1,087 fans per game. When school officials asked where that attendance ranked nationally, the NCAA replied that it only keeps rankings for the top 100 schools. Oh. This winter the Gophers averaged 9,703 fans per game (seventh nationally) at Williams Arena, a.k.a. the Barn.
Minnesota hasn't been this amped about college sports since Hayden Fox led the Screaming Eagles to the Popcorn Bowl. Whalen, the school's alltime leading scorer among men or women, is the first U of M athlete to have her own bobblehead doll, which sold out. Her number 13 jersey is the most popular item of its kind at Gold Country, the Gophers merchandise mecca.
On March 28 the women's hockey team defeated Harvard, 6-2, to win its first NCAA title (and the first in any NCAA sport for a Minnesota women's team). Wendell was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Two nights later her hoops sisters played top-ranked Duke in the Mideast Regional final. "Even a two-hour physics lab couldn't keep us from watching that game," says student Kelly Pearson. "We watched on our laptops."
The Gophers won, 82-75, and at press time were preparing to face two-time defending national champion UConn in the Final Four. For a basketball squad that finished 8-20 in 2000-01, this is unbelievable, but then the Gophers women are making a habit of turning Minnesota upside down. And that is poetic. After all, when you turn an M upside down, what do you get?
Issue date: April 8, 2004