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New Orleans, La. — A mania had been building over the past month as the University of Minnesota women's basketball team won an impressive string of NCAA tournament games. In New Orleans, it had hit a fever pitch. "I think it's a combination of disbelief and euphoria," said Terry McFarland, president of the Fast Break Club, the women's basketball booster club at the U of M.
More than 1,000 tickets to the Final Four were snapped up immediately by Minnesota fans, and even more made the trip and chanced landing a ticket to the sold-out event.
"The fans from Minnesota are so pumped up. Everywhere they go, people are telling them they're supporting Minnesota," McFarland said. "This isn't just a Minnesota thing. It's almost a national thing -- the coaches, the fans from other schools, the people from New Orleans. So it feels like our town, almost."
But on this night, the court belonged to the University of Connecticut Huskies. The two-time defending champions jumped out to a lead as large as 11 in the first half, largely due to second-chance baskets.
Coming into the game, rebounding -- particularly by All-American center Janel McCarville -- had been one of Minnesota's strongest suits. But Connecticut managed to get 11 points off offensive rebounds, and Minnesota coach Pam Borton said it was key to their victory.
"Offensive boards -- that was the difference. They dominated the boards, and that's why they won," Borton said after the game.
Connecticut also held Minnesota All-American guard Lindsay Whalen to 11 points. The Huskies often double-teamed Whalen when she had the ball. She attempted only 11 field goals for the game. Afterward McCarville credited UConn for frustrating Minnesota's offense.
"They took away everything we wanted to do," said McCarville.
As good as the Huskies were, Minnesota managed to keep things close. The Gophers went on several runs in the second half that brought the score to within two and three points. With just over 5 minutes left, the Gophers pulled within two. But they were unable to score more than three points after that. UConn coach Geno Auriemma praised Minnesota's style of play.
"I don't like to play smart teams, and they're really smart. They really believed they could beat us. They came in with a sense of purpose and never wavered from it," Auriemma said.
The loss marked the final game for Lindsay Whalen. Many credit Whalen with keeping the team together through a dismal freshman year and a series of coaches -- to what is now arguably one of the elite programs in the nation.
It's been a great run. I've enjoyed everything we've done. We've left our mark here.
"It's been a great run. I've enjoyed everything we've done. We've left our mark here," said Whalen.
Pam Borton praised Whalen's contribution to the program. But she also said that Whalen was leaving her teammates with valuable tournament experience and a drive to win.
"With experience, everyone coming back -- help with recruiting," Borton said.
Fast Break Club President Terry McFarland also sees a bright future. Club membership has tripled in the past three years, and he believes the new fans that have followed the Gophers during their unlikely run will come back for more.
"I think it will continue to build. I think people are sold on this game, on this team and on this coaching staff," McFarland said. "I expect we'll be a competitive team, based on what we've got coming back and recuits. I think Minnesota is going to be a force for years to come."
Connecticut plays Tennessee in Tuesday night's national championship game, the fourth time the teams have met for the title. A "welcome back" rally will be held for the Gophers team Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Williams Arena.