Minneapolis, Minn. — Thirteen months ago before a big women's basketball game, U of M athletics officials mounted a publicity campaign aimed at filling every seat in their arena, the Sports Pavilion.
Organizers of the "Pack the Pav" promotion felt 5,600 ticket sales was an ambitious but reasonable goal. They never did pack the pav, though. Damage from a broken water pipe forced the game into neighboring Williams Arena, where capacity is nearly three times as large. When they set a school attendance record for women's sports, the basketball team made itself at home in Williams and has never returned to the samller Pavilion.
Senior forward Corrin Von Wald of Hudson, Wisconsin, says the sudden growth in attendance has been amazing.
"My first year here I sat out, actually, and we played in the Pavilion," Von Wald remembers. "You could sneeze and hit everybody in the stands. There was nobody that came to the games. It wasn't really pumping-up for us. We'd run out and it's like 'OK, we're basically playing in front of our family and friends.' I think it's huge this year and in a lot of games where we've been close the crowd has gotten into it and kind of helped us."
First-year coach Pam Borton, who came to Minnesota from Boston College, says the Gophers get excited to play in front of the big home crowds.
"They love playing in Williams Arena," Borton said. "Them knowing that we're going to have anywhere from nine to 13,000 fans here -- it's a whole 'nother energy level. It's one of the best basketball atmospheres in the country, I think."
Borton became Minnesota's third coach in as many years when last year's national Coach of the Year, Brenda Oldfield, left Minnesota after just one season to take a job coaching the University of Maryland. Maryland now occupies eighth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while the Gophers are tied for second in the Big Ten and ranked 13th in the nation.
You could sneeze and hit everybody in the stands. There was nobody that came to the games.
Von Wald says the adjustment to Borton took a little while but has gone smoothly.
"I think in the beginning some of us were kind of skeptical maybe about what she had to offer, what she had to bring defensively-wise," Von Wald says. "But I think right now we think as one unit and we believe in one another and we believe in our staff. And I think that's key."
Under Oldfield, the Gophers used a zone defense. But Borton has them playing woman to woman. That's been one of the team's biggest adjustments. Another has been coping with the added attention opposing defenses give to guard Lindsey Whalen.
Whalen, a junior guard from Hutchinson, won All-America honors and was named Big Ten Player of the Year last season. Center Janel McCarville says as opposing defenses focus more on Whalen, it opens opportunities for the Gophers' other players.
"Whalen, she's a tremendous passer and she can get you the ball," McCarville said. "So, it makes the offense more fast paced. We can score so quickly if someone doubles."
Minnesota is the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten this year. Whalen is among the nation's top twenty players in both scoring and assists. All four of the Gophers losses this year came during an eight-game stretch in January and early February. Borton says improved defense was the key to pulling the team out of its slump.
Like last year, Minnesota will head into the Big Ten's post-season tournament as co-favorite with Purdue and Penn State. As she looks to the future, Borton is optimistic the Gophers can stay near the top of the conference for years to come.
In the past, many of Minnesota's best high school players have gone elsewhere to play college basketball. Borton says the new enthusiasm surrounding the Gophers will make it easier for the U of M to recruit top athletes.
"I want to build a tradition here and not be second or first one year and be last another year. I think that's the point we want to get to as a program, where we can be like a Penn State and Purdue. They're good every year. They've been good for the last 10 years. That's how I want people to perceive our program here. We've just got to keep recruiting, we've got to keep building a great product here with our crowds. I think we've got a great thing to offer here," Borton said.
Whalen has one more year of college left but she suspects the Gophers have turned a corner and will stay on their newfound path of success for a good long time.
"It'd be great knowing that we got that started and that we were the ones that were the generation that kind of got things going," Whalen said. "I hope it does because it kind of seems like 'Well, what did we work for if it didn't eventually pay off?' So, I hope it does, for sure."
After their home finale, the Gophers finish the regular season against Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday.