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Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Lindsay Whalen has been the force behind Minnesota's rise to prominence. Her return from an injury might be the key to the Gophers' success in the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota started 15-0 and was ranked as high as sixth in The Associated Press poll. But a February fade, exacerbated by an injury to Whalen, spoiled the Gophers' run and led to a No. 7 seed in the Mideast Region.

On Monday, the cast on her injured right hand was removed and Whalen went through her first offensive drills in a month. But Whalen's return doesn't guarantee success.

"Whatever Lindsay gives us on the court is going to be a bonus,'' coach Pam Borton said. "Everyone else is going to have to continue to do what they've done.''

Whalen broke two bones in her shooting hand in a loss at Ohio State on Feb. 12, and hasn't played since. Minnesota (21-8) lost eight of its last 14 games, going 3-4 with Whalen and 3-4 without her.

The school's career scoring leader with 2,186 career points, an All-American and team captain, Whalen has helped engineer the Gophers' rise over the past three seasons.

Her 3-point shooting, ability to slash through the lane for a layup or find an open teammate with a precise pass has helped attract record crowds to Williams Arena -- where Minnesota plays UCLA on Sunday in a first-round game.

But the Gophers must be careful. They can't fall back on Whalen, or simply count on their home-court advantage, if they want to advance.

"We all just have to do what we were doing when she was gone,'' guard Shannon Schonrock said. "We can't get on our heels and just sit and watch her.''

That might not be easy.

"The confidence that she brings, the intensity, just spreads throughout everybody,'' Schonrock said. "I think she makes everyone more at ease.''

On Tuesday, Whalen went through her first all-out scrimmage since the injury.

On one play, Whalen threaded an improbable pass through the defense to an open teammate.

"Everyone just stopped and smiled and said ... it's nice to have her back,'' said center Janel McCarville, Minnesota's second-leading scorer at 15.6 points per game and its top rebounder with a 10.1 average.

"Lindsay's an amazing girl,'' McCarville said. "She breaks two bones in her hand and comes back two weeks earlier than everyone expected her to and is playing and shooting just as well as she did before she got hurt.''

Whalen said she's able to do everything normally except pass -- a skill made more difficult with a loss of hand strength. There hasn't been any pain, though, and her wind is slowly coming back.

"I'm going to turn it over,'' she said. "I'm going to dribble it off my leg, but that's just the way it is.''

Though Whalen probably will start, she won't be playing 40 minutes. That makes the play of McCarville, Schonrock, forward Kadidja Andersson and others more important.

"She isn't always on the floor,'' McCarville said. "We need to learn how to score without her.''

The Gophers looked lost in their first few games without their leader, especially McCarville.

"I didn't know how to handle it,'' McCarville said. "I didn't have a perimeter player who cut and sliced and gave me good passes. ... But as time went on, I got smarter and my teammates started stepping up and put me in better position to score.''

The other danger for Minnesota is to get too comfortable playing at home. If the Gophers beat UCLA, they would play their second-round game at home, too.

Whalen doesn't think that will pose a problem.

"I don't think we can really be relaxed right now,'' she said. "We need to go play like it's our last game, because it could be.''

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