Fox finding ways to lift Gophers

You could see the joyful relief on Emily Fox's face at the end of Minnesota's 52-48 victory over Illinois on Saturday. It was one of those "Did we really pull this one out?" kind of games, a grinder, something that indeed felt a bit more like tooth extraction than playing basketball.

When you win those games, though, they are not really "ugly." They're more um scruffy-looking.

The Gophers are going to need to win like that more this season. Big Ten contests will be like that at times. A senior now, Fox knows the drill well and is trying to help teach four Gophers rookies.

"I'm just trying to show them how to play, how it works at Minnesota," she said. "I'm hoping to leave something for them so it continues to be a great program."

A 5-foot-9 guard, Fox is averaging a team-high 13.5 points for the 10-4 Gophers, who had lost three of their last four games before rallying at Illinois. Fox truly had her breakout season last year, when she was an All-Big Ten selection and averaged 17.2 points per game.

"She's the proverbial gym rat," Minnesota coach Pam Borton said. "She's one of the most competitive kids I've coached."

Fox helped the Gophers to the NCAA tournament in two of her first three seasons. But Minnesota hasn't returned to the heights it reached in 2004, when it lured Fox. She had watched that Final Four team with Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville like so many other high school kids and thought, "That would be fun to be a part of."

Minnesota, in turn, had initially watched her with the intention of seeing someone else. Fox doesn't hesitate telling that story.

"Minnesota was recruiting Abby, and that's how they first saw me," she said.

That would be Abby Waner, her ThunderRidge High teammate in Colorado and still one of her best friends. Waner went to Duke, made the NCAA championship game as a freshman and then

Well, things didn't go exactly as she expected. Waner's coach, Gail Goestenkors, left in 2007 for Texas. Her relationship with new coach Joanne P. McCallie has seemed, at best, like a tentative dance between two people who don't actually click.

Fox, meanwhile, went through team defections and discord early in her career at Minnesota. Fox and Waner both know everything the other has experienced. They've been a support for each other despite their distance apart.

"It's a really special bond we have," Fox said. "We call each other after games. We talk almost every day. We're really close."

They also keep up with other Denver-area players in Division I, such as the Hartig sisters, Jayna and Kelly, at Virginia. The Hartigs went to ThunderRidge, too. Colorado girls' basketball has blossomed in the past decade. And while it got a lot of negative publicity because of the wrongdoings of Rick Lopez, the overall health of girls' hoops in that region is strong.

"I think it is; there are a couple of great AAU programs and more good players coming out of that state," Borton said. "They have kids who are following college players from there who have been successful and want to emulate them."

Fox said that drive to play in Division I -- and the understanding of what it would take to do that -- already was firmly in place for her and Waner by the time they were barely in their teens.

"It was really something special to play four years at ThunderRidge," Fox said. "I think our practices were so intense, and we made each other better every day. It's how we were driven."

Fox also thinks

(OK, OK, OK we've got to get the obligatory cup-stacking reference in, right? Yes, as you've probably heard, Fox is a cup-stacking superstar. You might even have seen her on TV. Yes, she still does it -- "Muscle memory," she says -- and people frequently ask to see it for themselves. She'll do it for you if you ask but probably not during a game.)

Actually, Fox has one other hobby, although she has been "banned" from doing it until she's finished with her Minnesota hoops career.

"I really like to water ski," she said, but then pointing to a scar on her leg, adds, "My dad kind of ran over me with the boat -- it happened in the summer [2007] -- so I'm not allowed to water ski until I'm done here."

She hopes by the time she's through at Minnesota, she'll be able to lead the Gophers farther in the postseason than they've been during her career. They lost in the NCAA first round in 2006 and 2008. They played in the WNIT in 2007.

Regardless of how it turns out, though, Fox has been happy with her college choice.

"It's a great city, and it's fun that the campus is right in the city," she said. "And one of the reasons I decided to go to Minnesota was the fans. It's exciting to play in front of people who care so much about women's basketball. It's an honor, really."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.