<
>

Whalen, Johnson still have plenty of ball ahead

NEW ORLEANS -- So Lindsay Whalen was just about ready to face the TV cameras in the
Minnesota locker room after the NCAA semifinal loss to UConn. And she
looked around her, sized up the situation and said, "You guys OK to
shoot here with the mirrors behind me?''

Now, what could be more "Minnesota'' than that? Whalen was bummed out, her college career is over, she really thought the Gophers could win, she'd love to have had a crack at Tennessee ... but she also wanted to make sure the camera people were OK. No sense at all in not checking.

These Minnesotans are smart, practical people.

Whalen's Gopher playing days might be done, but legends never have to end. Whalen didn't cry after the loss to UConn -- she looked as placid as she always does -- but there might have been enough tears shed by her fans to create the 10,001st lake back in Minnesota.

Not really so much because Minnesota lost -- it was valiant effort against a program that obviously is one of the best-ever in college
sports. The Gophers' gumption was so clearly proven in this run to the Final Four and in the repeated comebacks against the Huskies that defeat, while hard to take for Minnesota, wasn't crushing.

The "goodbye, Lindsay'' part is a lot harder. Try not to be too sad, Gopher folks. Five weeks ago, everyone despaired that Whalen's college career was prematurely over after her hand injury. All things considered, a Final Four run after that was almost too good to be true.

Besides, it really isn't goodbye. To her as a Gopher, yes. But not to watching Whalen turn basketball into a marvelous kind of athletic
"jazz.''

Whalen now goes to the WNBA, and if there were ever a reason to do everything you possibly can to support the league, she's it. As are, of course, her fellow seniors, such as UConn's Diana Taurasi.

"I'm just glad I get to play again,'' Whalen said. "I think it would be a lot harder right now knowing my career was over for good. But I
guess I'll get to play for a little while longer.''

We wouldn't mind, like, 20 years longer or so. If she's OK with that.

Yeah, Whalen did go 3-for-11 from the field, and did have five turnovers against UConn. There's always stuff to work on, and the
Huskies have a way of showing that better than most opponents.

Plus, excited as fans are about these seniors, the pro players aren't exactly "dying'' for the rookies to arrive. The pros on the national
team kicked the all-star seniors' tails 105-58 in an exhibition game Saturday.

Whalen, Taurasi and Duke's Alana Beard weren't on that team, but the pros' message is the same for all the youngsters: "You might be good, but you're still going to have to prove yourself on this level.''

We'll find out soon enough exactly where Whalen will try to do that. The WNBA draft is April 17, and it still seems that Phoenix will take Taurasi first. After that, no one is sure what's going to happen.

Washington drafts second, and needs a point guard. But do they take Beard anyway? What about Stanford's Nicole Powell? What about Whalen? It will be an interesting day.

Of course, LSU's Temeka Johnson is also listed as a senior and might have been in the draft mix, too. But as a partial-qualifier her freshman year, she didn't play. Her academic progress since has earned her the opportunity to get a fourth season, and she's taking it.

So she'll have another chance with LSU -- and won't be left with a costly turnover against Tennessee as her final college memory. LSU loses one starter in Doneeka Hodges, but brings back everyone else. And, hopefully, coach Sue Gunter will return feeling healthy.

Asked what she would take from the disappointment of Sunday, Johnson said, "For me, it's to put this game away, but don't forget it.''

Neither she nor Whalen were able to help their "underdog'' teams into the final. But both still have a lot to do on the basketball court.

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