'Big' girl, bigger legends

NEW ORLEANS -- Back in November, I was at this tournament in the Bahamas ...

Yeah, yeah, people will say. You sports writers have such a difficult life. But the thing is, when you are a basketball-obsessed, work-obsessed freak, the Bahamas isn't really THAT much different than anyplace else. Just warmer in November.

It was still pretty much, "Where is the gym? Where are the phone lines? How do I dial out? Why did she just throw that pass? How good is that defense?''

And, in this case, it also meant having to constantly remind myself to drive on the other side of the road.

So, anyway, in the Bahamas, Minnesota was beating Southern Cal. One of the WNBA scouts there was discussing the Gophers' Lindsay Whalen. And then the scout said, "But the big girl is really putting on a show tonight.''

Of course, that was Janel McCarville, and after watching her, that's when I started thinking, "You know, the Gophers really could go to the Final Four this year.''

Not exactly genius insight or anything, but the feeling stuck right up until Whalen broke her hand against Ohio State on Feb. 12. It was one of those times when you think, "Why is fate this cruel?''

But it turned out that was only a plot twist. Whalen got back to business vs. UCLA in the NCAA first round, and this became a Paul Bunyon-esque tale of chopping down higher-seeded Kansas State, then Boston College, then Duke. True, if Whalen hadn't been hurt, Minnesota almost certainly wouldn't have been lower than a No. 3 seed. But she was, and they struggled, and then everything came together again.

During this NCAA Tournament run, the Whalen legend has grown and the
McCarville legend finally has hit the big time.

Whalen is the oldest of five children; McCarville is the youngest of five. Whalen goes through news conferences almost never changing expression; McCarville often can't stop herself from grinning. Both equally crack me up. I'm convinced they could have played themselves as characters on "Newhart'' or "Northern Exposure'' and successfully ad-libbed all of their scenes.

Whalen got through her one season under coach Cheryl Littlejohn, probably surviving by just never saying out loud everything that probably ran through her head. McCarville would have said it, though, so it's probably a big blessing for everyone involved that Littlejohn, who recruited McCarville, didn't actually coach her.

Coach Brenda Frese came in for her Prof. Harold Hill stint in Minneapolis. And like so much else in this crazy, funny, terrific Gophers story, that also all worked out for the best. Frese did help the team learn how to win and have fun. Then when she left for Dream Job No. 2 at Maryland, that provided extra motivation for the "ditched'' Gophers.

It's fascinating how both Whalen and McCarville have developed games that, if not unique to them, make both stand out. Whalen is a great penetrator, passer and finisher. Discretion is not always the better part of valor in Whalen's game, and yet that fearlessness is exactly what makes her so riveting to watch. And it works the vast majority of the time.

Let's put it this way, if Whalen is going to "croak'' [in basketball] it's going to be while storming the castle, not because she gets ambushed back at camp.

McCarville surprises the people who haven't seen her before by how deftly she weaves being a great power player with finesse skills. When reporters asked K-State's Nicole Ohlde before the second-round game about how she was the "nimble'' center going against the "power'' center, Ohlde said McCarville was a whole lot quicker than folks might assume.

The Gophers' supporting cast has been very good: Shannon Schonrock's perimeter shooting, Shannon Bolden's defense, Kadidja Andersson's steadiness. And freshmen Kelly Roysland, Jamie Broback and Liz Podominick have had big contributions, too.

As for how the state of Minnesota has become captivated by the team ... well, remember how the Huskies did that for Connecticut back in 1995?

Every time and everywhere something like that happens, all of women's basketball takes a step forward.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.