Commentary

Lindsay Whalen leads way for USA

Backup point guard scores team-high 16 points in second-round win over Canada

Originally Published: September 27, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

This was Lindsay Whalen's homecoming summer, but it was not quite the happy parade that her long-waiting fans in Minnesota were hoping to see.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesTeam USA trailed 11-5 before holding Canada without a basket for seven minutes, using a 16-3 run to take a 33-17 lead.

Which might actually make it even more important to Whalen and the Lynx that she is part of the U.S. national team at the FIBA World Championship for Women. Monday, she was actually a big part of Team USA's attack. In the Americans' 87-46 victory over Canada, Whalen came off the bench for a team-high 16 points, making 5 of 7 shots from the field and all six of her free throws.

Her performance helped Team USA get off to a good start as the second round opened; the Americans, Australians and Russians remain undefeated. The U.S. women face Belarus on Tuesday (2:15 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

"Lindsay was just great," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said in the postgame news conference. "She set a tone."

That's exactly what the Americans need from Whalen when she is on the floor. There were multiple options USA Basketball had available for backing up starting point guard Sue Bird. After a tough process of cutting down the roster, Team USA went with Whalen, the 28-year-old who just completed her seventh WNBA season. This is her first world championship.

In a teleconference after she got the news that she was on the 12-member team, Whalen talked about the positive impact that her selection made on what hasn't been the best of summers.

"I guess I've just kept my spirits up, and every day came to the USA camp knowing that I was going to work hard, play hard and hopefully get picked for the team," she said. "Yeah, it's a positive way to kind of end off the summer in that regard."

On the court, the Lynx faced the disappointment of another season out of the playoffs; Minnesota has made the postseason just twice in the franchise's 12 years of existence (2003, '04). And away from basketball, Whalen faced a family tragedy as her husband's brother drowned in early August.

As Whalen said, dealing with that put the problems the Lynx were facing in a different perspective. So going to the Czech Republic with Team USA has been therapeutic. Actually, this is a part of the world that Whalen was already familiar with, having played with the USK Prague team for three seasons. She'll be there again this winter.

Of course, she hopes to have a world championship gold medal then. It would be very special to someone who has come close to "winning it all" in NCAA and WNBA basketball, but hasn't quite crossed that finish line.

Whalen led the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the 2004 Women's Final Four, where they lost in the semis to her current USA teammate, Diana Taurasi, and coach, Geno Auriemma. Then, after UConn ended her college career, Whalen began her pro career with the Connecticut Sun, who picked her No. 4 in the WNBA draft. Minnesota fans were just about willing to give up anything in a trade to get her back, but it didn't happen. Not then, anyway.

Whalen was never obviously unhappy in her six seasons with the Sun, two of which ended in the WNBA Finals, with losses to Seattle in 2004 and Sacramento in 2005.

She was, in fact, an outstanding player for Connecticut. It's just that in the back of her mind, the lure to return to her native state and play for the Lynx was always there. And when the pieces fell into place for that to happen -- the Lynx acquired the 2010 No. 1 draft pick, aka the rights to Tina Charles, and were willing to give that up -- it seemed like one of the league's least-successful franchises was going to turn a corner.

And this season began well enough for the Lynx … in the opener, that is. Minnesota won its first game, which was at Tulsa. But that was a false start. The Lynx proceeded to lose nine of their next 10. Seimone Augustus, who missed most of the 2009 season with injury, came back this summer, but never quite seemed fully 100 percent, although she did average 16.9 points. A 2008 Olympian, she was one of the final cuts for Team USA for this tournament.

The Lynx were also hurt when Candice Wiggins, one of the team's emotional leaders, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon June 22 and was out for the season.

Minnesota did eventually go through some brief stretches where it had things together. At the start of August, they beat eventual WNBA champion Seattle, as well as Connecticut and Chicago. But Minnesota far too often let leads slip away, losing five of its last eight games, and didn't get it done in a weaker-than-usual Western Conference.

It left first-year Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve with a lot of questions to answer, although it looks right now as though she'll have another season to try to do that. (That won't be the case for Sandy Brondello at San Antonio, though; she and husband/assistant coach Olaf Lange were let go by the Silver Stars on Monday.)

Whalen signed a contract extension on Aug. 12, good news for her and the Lynx. Yet coming so soon after her brother-in-law's death, and in the midst of the team's struggles, it wasn't the celebratory event it might have been.

Whalen, though, has never been the type to let much emotion show. It is one of her strengths as a player, actually. Point guards can lead in a lot of different ways. And for Whalen, the cool reserve and calm demeanor that come naturally to her have been effective in inspiring confidence in others.

In her first world championship, in 2002, Bird was a backup to Dawn Staley. Asked what qualities were most useful in that position, Bird said, "You need somebody as a backup who does their job, plays great defense, can hit an open shot. Even if you split time, you need a change-up."

Whalen is that. While her averages this WNBA season weren't all that different from Bird's in general, the two players tend to attack in different ways. Whalen will drive the lane more; Bird is a better perimeter shooter, especially from 3-point range.

Both hold their own defensively better than they sometimes get credit for doing. And neither is the least bit hesitant to have the ball in her hands at crunch time. It's what they're used to.

"She's got a lot of experience and a lot of talent, and I'm just trying to learn from her," Whalen said of Bird, who has two more years of experience in the WNBA. "And coach Auriemma, he's really taught me a lot."

The world championship could ultimately put a good spin on this year for Whalen. Depending on how the lottery goes, Minnesota could have a spectacular addition in the next spring's draft. Even if they don't get the No. 1 selection -- virtually sure to be Team USA's lone amateur, Maya Moore of UConn -- the Lynx definitely should pick up more talent.

Admittedly, high draft picks haven't helped the Lynx very much thus far, in terms of the postseason. But maybe, finally, next year will be the year. In which case, Whalen would feel more at home than ever.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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