October 10, 2004

Whalen makes Sun brighter

Six months after she led the University of Minnesota to its first Final Four and turned the state on to women's college basketball, Lindsay Whalen is at it again as a professional.

The WNBA rookie has carried the Connecticut Sun to the franchise's first league championship series, a best-of-three clash with the Seattle Storm that begins tonight at the home of the Eastern Conference champs.

The Sun's playoff run prolongs a whirlwind year of high-stakes hoops and life-altering experiences for Whalen, who is used to the fast lane.

"It's been crazy," she said. "I haven't had a break since the Gophers' season began (last October). I'll be taking some time off when I get home."

Whalen lives in Groton, Conn., but home remains Hutchinson, Minn. And home was where Minnesota Lynx fans hoped Whalen would stay when the WNBA draft rolled around less than a month after the Gophers lost in the NCAA tournament to the eventual champions, the Connecticut Huskies.

The Sun traded all-star Shannon Johnson to San Antonio to move up in the first round and grab Whalen with the fourth overall pick. The Lynx had contemplated trading up from No. 8 to secure Whalen, but the Sun's price of two starters and two first-round picks was too expensive for owner Glen Taylor's taste.

Connecticut coach Mike Thibault had scouted Whalen since last Thanksgiving, and he was ecstatic to bring the talented point guard on board.

"We never had any intention of trading that pick," he said. "She's pretty special, and it was very important that we improved our backcourt. We're happy it's worked out this way. I think she is, too."

"We're in the championship, so it's definitely worked out," Whalen said.

Few would argue, given the results on the floor, where Whalen is heating up at the perfect time for Connecticut.

Whalen leads the Sun in playoff scoring with 15.4 points a game and assists with 4.6 a game. Her 18 points and nine rebounds on Sunday helped the Sun defeat the New York Liberty and clinch the conference title.

"All of us were a little nervous to see what level she'd play at coming in as a rookie, but she really stepped up for us and allowed us to do some great things," forward Nykesha Sales said. "We love to jump on her back and go."

Whalen already had the star credentials when she arrived in Connecticut. A two-time All-America, she electrified Williams Arena for four seasons and helped lead the Gophers to the NCAA tournament three consecutive years after the school had qualified only once before.

But Whalen had to earn the respect of her Connecticut teammates; Thibault said she did by displaying the unselfishness and leadership that made her a college standout.

"It takes time to prove to your teammates and coaches that you can play in this league and be a factor," Whalen said. "Once you reach that point, you can relax and have fun. I feel confident right now."

After the WNBA Finals, Whalen will return to the University of Minnesota to take a break from basketball and finish her academic career. A winter internship will complete her degree in sports management and allow her to watch the Gophers proceed without her.

Whalen was asked to compare the Gophers' magical run to the Final Four to reaching the WNBA Finals in her rookie season.

"It's similar in intensity and that it's something that each team had never done before," she said. "But it's a different feeling from college. It's your job now, and there's pressure. Good pressure. This is why they drafted me.

"It's only my first year. But it's been a great first year. I'm looking forward to the future out here."

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