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Fans give Gopher women a rousing welcome home
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The Gopher women's basketball team celebrated its Final Four appearance at a rally on campus Wednesday night. The team lost to national champions the University of Connecticut in the semi-finals. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Gopher fans and players Wednesday night celebrated the eight months of hard work, sweat and tears that came to an end Sunday for the University of Minnesota women's basketball team. The Gophers made history this year, becoming the first U of M women's basketball team to advance to the NCAA Final Four Tournament. At a welcome home rally at Williams Arena, hundreds of fans came to show their support for the team.

Minneapolis, Minn. — You'd never know the team lost to UConn in the semifinal in New Orleans. Williams Arena was awash in maroon and gold and buzzing with the energy of a winning season. The marching band and spirit squad led about 1,500 Gopher fans in cheers.

Like most fans, Larry Kline of Brooklyn Park has no regrets that the team didn't come home with the championship.

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Image Fans

"The girls did a wonderful job. The ladies gave an effort for 40 minutes, non-stop defense, non-stop hustle, non-stop enthusiasm. You can't ask for anything more than that from the girls," said Kline.

The welcome home rally at Williams gave the team a chance to thank its fans.

Dressed in matching white sweats, players came out one by one, showered by confetti and the loud applause of the crowd. Team members and coaching staff then settled in folding chairs on the court, across from the smiling fans in the stands.

U of M Athletic Director Joel Maturi thanked the team for its hard work, and the fans for their devotion.

"Let's face it. No team in my 59 years of age -- and being a Gopher for all those years -- no team that I am ever aware of has captured your attention, your love, your admiration, more than these ladies right here," Maturi said.

The players clearly enjoyed the moment. They laughed and joked with one another.

Junior Janel McCarville -- just named a Kodak All American -- thanked everyone on the team from the coaches to the players and managers for pushing her every day to be better.

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Image Lindsay Whalen

Graduating senior and undoubtedly the star player this season, Lindsay Whalen, got the loudest and longest ovation.

"I think that I'd just like to be remembered as someone who enjoyed everything about the program. The fans, and the players, my teammates the coaches," Whalen said. "There's a lot that we've accomplished and a lot that we're obviously proud of. But, yeah I just had a great time. I enjoyed it thoroughly."

Head Coach Pam Borton received a standing ovation from the fans. Many of them say they're grateful that Borton came along after a string of problems with previous coaches.

She thanked the fans and vowed to keep pushing the team.

"After last year, going to the Sweet 16, and now going to the Final Four, I know the bar has been raised, the expectations have been raised," Borton said. "Our players sacrificed a lot, they know what they need to sacrifice, they know what type of effort it needs to take for us to get back there, hopefully next year."

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Image Coach Pam Borton

Though fans may lament losing Whalen, they say they're excited about next season.

Barbara Sibley of St. Paul is a member of the Fast Break Club, the women's team boosters. She predicts Gophers women's basketball tickets will become a hot commodity.

"I was down in New Orleans and felt at the end of the game, that this is just the beginning. That this is how traditions get started," said Sibley. "So, I'm very thrilled, and excited about next year with the people coming back and a tremendous recruiting class. I think it's going to be a great season."

The Gophers next year will have the continuity of Janel McCarville's leadership, and the promise of other players like Shannnon Bolden and freshman Kelly Roysland. The team has also recruited six new players, including Leslie Knight from Hopkins High School. Fans in the know say it will be another thrilling ride.

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