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Whalen difference for Gophers women

MINNEAPOLIS -- Lindsay Whalen showed up at a Hutchinson gym, the story goes, and waited to get into a pickup game with some guys. Just as the contest was about to begin, Whalen's unwitting opponent made some sarcastic reference to the difficult task of guarding a girl.

First play. She gets a pass, takes a big jab step to the right, effortlessly crosses the ball over to her left hand and dribbles between HIS legs.

Easy layup.

The Big Ten, though far better prepared, is getting a similar schooling this season from Whalen, who's been adding to her collection of Player of the Week awards almost as fast as she's been scooting past her opponents on the floor.

Witness what she did to eighth-ranked Purdue a week ago: 41 points on 15-for-20 shooting in a 73-64 beating of the Boilermakers. New coach Brenda Oldfield has worked wonders with the Golden Gophers and should be a strong candidate for national coach of the year, but Whalen's play has been equally important to No. 14 Minnesota's 20-5 start.

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Yes, these are the same Gophers that bombed out in the Big Ten basement a year ago at 1-15.

"The biggest difference is Lindsay Whalen," said Ohio State coach Beth Burns. "She's Larry Bird for the Gophers."

Whalen, a sophomore, has won her own coach over, too.

"She really puts the team on her back," Oldfield said. "She has such tremendous energy. You think of Lindsay Whalen as a shy, quiet, unassuming young girl and then when you're around her, no doubt she has a lot of fun. The neatest thing is how well she's handled the role that she's in. It's just remarkable that someone her age is able to handle the adversity and stress that come with having to be prepared and ready. She does so many things."

Or, as freshman center Janel McCarville puts it, "There ain't much Whalen can't do."

Including, apparently, music.

"She's a nut," said Kadidja Andersson. "Always goofing off. Singing."

Based on teammates' observation of her behavior in the back of the bus, Whalen might be headed toward a life as an MTV personality instead of, say, a point guard in the WNBA. She even has a self-appointed nickname: DJ Whay.

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Where does that come from?

"Because I make the rhymes and I drop the dimes," Whalen says without hesitation.

A dime, for the culturally challenged, is a hip term for an assist. Something the younger folks would know, although as a person just a few years removed from a college campus I'll admit to having no idea that were true if it weren't for Stuart Scott's rap-speak on ESPN's SportsCenter.

Speaking of assists, yeah, Whalen's got that, too.

Whalen's performance against Purdue last week was fueled by motivation from subpar games she had before against the Boilermakers. In a January loss to Purdue, Whalen had nine points and seven assists.

But as Oldfield points out, "For some of our players, nine points and seven assists is a career high. She's done a remarkable job of understanding when she needs to turn it on and include her teammtes. It's amazing how she's been able to do what she's able to do but then allow all her teammates in the mix."

They agree.

"What's nice about Lindsay, when she penetrates, she not only looks for a shot for herself, but she looks for other players," said Corrin Von Wald, Minnesota's second-best scoring option. "She gets everybody involved. That's just a strength of hers. She's smart about that. We need to run the play, but if she sees a gap, she's going to take it in. That's what's great about her. Sometimes we just sat back, and I just watched her."

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Whalen is as modest and laid-back on the court as she is off it, at least in the company of strangers. Her friends from Hutchinson say she'll show you a smirk once in awhile, but nobody would notice unless they know her.

"Sometimes you just get in a rhythm and a flow," she shrugged after the Purdue game last week.

An admittedly frugal friend was overheard talking the other day about going to a Gophers game for the first time, and the motivation for showing up was clearly tied to the fact he had access to courtside seats, free of charge.

There was a brief pause.

"Actually, I'd pay to go see Lindsay Whalen play."

The Gophers host Wisconsin at 7 p.m. today at Williams Arena. The game will be televised on Fox SportsNet.

Dave Campbell is an Associated Press sports columnist based in the Twin Cities.

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