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Lindsay Whalen returns
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A native daughter but now a point guard for the Connecticut Sun, Lindsay Whalen moves the ball down the court Wednesday in a game against the Minnesota Lynx. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
Former U of M basketball star Lindsay Whalen thrilled fans in her much celebrated return to the Minnesota hoops scene Wednesday. Whalen is a rookie point guard for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. Her team took on the Minnesota Lynx in Target Center and lost 66-63.

Minneapolis, Minn. — More than 16,000 fans piled into Target Center for the noon tipoff. Many were wearing Lynx jerseys and caps, but it was evident they were also rooting for 5-foot-8-inch Lindsay Whalen.

Once the game got underway, fans repeated their approval every time Whalen scored. That ended up being a lot. She racked up 18 points, her highest total so far in the WNBA.

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Image Fans galore

Whalen's reception wasn't surprising. She's achieved cult status in Minnesota, scoring more points in her career than any other Gopher basketball player, man or woman. And just a few months ago, Whalen led the Gophers to the NCAA Final Four while nursing a broken hand. The team lost to the University of Connecticut in the semi-finals, but Whalen and her teammates were heros all the same, attracting thousands of new fans to women's basketball.

Connecticut Sun head coach Mike Thibault said he was looking for a leader when he grabbed Whalen with the fourth pick in the WNBA draft. Whalen got off to a slow start at the beginning of the season, but Thibault said Whalen has been playing so well recently that she could beat out No. 1 draft pick Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury for the rookie prize.

"You could make a legitimate case right now for her being rookie of the year," Thibault said. "Everybody assumes that Diana is going to be rookie of the year, and she's really good. But the way we're playing, if we keep playing that way, (Whalen's) gotta be given consideration for it."

Many Minnesota fans were disappointed when Connecticut got Whalen. The Minnesota Lynx had the sixth and seventh picks, and some fans, including Tim Hall, said the team should have tried to cut a deal to get Whalen.

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Image Lindsay Whalen

"She's a great player," Hall said during Wednesday's game. "The Lynx should have given away the farm to get her, and they would have packed this place like this every time."

During her Twin Cities trip, Whalen dodged questions about whether she wanted to play in her home state. But the Hutchinson native did say it was nice to visit.

"It was great. It was good to be back," Whalen said. "It was good to see everyone. It was quick. I did a lot of things in just a couple days."

Whalen made several public appearances while she was in the Twin Cities. And she did something that no other female athlete has been able to do here -- she charged $20 for her autograph. Her fans seemed more than willing to pay.

It's exciting to see Whalen attracting so much attention, said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

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Image Tim Hall

"It's not just that she's a role model for little girls. It's that she's also a role model for men and for boys," Kane said.

Boys and men understand, respect and admire the world of sports, she said.

"And so when they see that female athletes can deliver in the crunch, can exhibit grace under pressure," Kane said, "they understand what that's about. I think it not only elevates how they feel about female athletes, but about women in general."

Whalen and her Connecticut teammates head next to Texas, where they'll take on the San Antonio Silver Stars on Thursday night. The Lynx, meanwhile, will be up against the Liberty in New York.

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