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Mideast Region

Gophers Worth Watching

Seventh-Seeded Minnesota Poses Threat to Duke

By Jim Reedy
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 30, 2004; Page D09

NORFOLK, March 29 -- As they prepared last summer for another season among the elite teams in women's basketball, Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors and her assistants pored over tape of 12 other national title contenders, working under the assumption the Blue Devils might need one or more of those scouting reports months later in the NCAA tournament.

The file on the Minnesota Golden Gophers has proven quite useful. Tuesday night they will be the last obstacle between Duke and its third consecutive Final Four.

"We actually feel pretty familiar with them," said Goestenkors, whose team is ranked first in the country and seeded first in the Mideast Region.

Thus the Blue Devils (30-3) know well they will have their hands full with Minnesota's all-Americans, senior guard Lindsay Whalen and junior center Janel McCarville. The Golden Gophers (24-8) rose to sixth in the national polls after winning their first 15 games, but a mediocre Big Ten record and a hand injury that kept Whalen out for more than five weeks caused the NCAA selection committee to give them a No. 7 seed.

In the past two weeks, Minnesota has proven itself as dangerous as any team in the region, winning by double digits against 10th-seeded UCLA, second-seeded Kansas State and third-seeded Boston College.

"Not knowing if Lindsay was going to get to play in the tournament or not at that point, I think it was difficult for the committee to really seed them properly," Goestenkors said.

The Gophers lost four of seven games without Whalen, a three-time all-American who is among the game's most talented scorers. She averages 20.6 points and 5.4 assists, coordinating much of Minnesota's offense.

"Who knows what would have happened if Lindsay didn't get injured," said Pam Borton, Minnesota's second-year coach. "Would we have won those games? Maybe. We probably could have won a couple more, but it's hard to tell. . . . We just really didn't pay attention to the seed from the beginning. We just wanted to get out there and play basketball."

"We're playing as underdogs," McCarville said, "so we can't have that much pressure on us."

That attitude has served the Golden Gophers well. A win Tuesday would make them the third team in the 23-year history of the women's tournament to reach the Final Four despite a seed lower than sixth.

Minnesota will have to deal with a Duke defense that allows only 56.6 points per game. Whalen will be hounded by Alana Beard and occasionally Lindsey Harding, while McCarville will spar with the burliest Blue Devils: Mistie Bass, Brittany Hunter and perhaps 6-foot-7 freshman Alison Bales.

McCarville's rare package of skills -- strength, quickness and shooting touch in a 6-2 frame -- helped her average 15.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2 blocks and hit 62 percent of her shots this season.

"We haven't played anybody quite like her," Goestenkors said.

Like the rest of the Golden Gophers, McCarville had to do more after Whalen broke two bones in her right (shooting) hand Feb. 12 at Ohio State. She upped her production across the board and has kept it there since the program's all-time leading scorer returned. In three NCAA tournament games, McCarville has averaged 19.7 points and 16.7 rebounds.

"They said as soon as Lindsay broke her hand that things happen for a reason," Borton said. "I was waiting 51/2 weeks to figure out what that reason was. . . . It's made us a much better team."

Notes: Duke is one of only four programs to win at least 30 games in four consecutive seasons, joining Connecticut, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech). . . . Beard and Whalen, teammates last summer on the USA young women's national team, are among 11 women in NCAA history with at least 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists.

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