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Talented Lynx ready to roll with reunited Gophers McCarville and Whalen

Their 2004 Final Four run gave women’s basketball a brief interlude at the top of Twin Cities sports mountain. Salt and jalapeno. People loved them.

Janel McCarville, right, hugs Lindsay Whalen as they walk off the court near the end of the Gophers' March 30, 2004, game against Duke.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

The trainer’s room at any American sports venue is like North Korea, off-limits without special permission. But Janel McCarville had time to kill Wednesday night at Target Center while receiving treatment on a balky left ankle, and who enjoys chatting more than the gregarious McCarville? At her invitation, in we went.

The new Minnesota Lynx forward/center and former University of Minnesota star offered a smile and a fist bump in lieu of a handshake, her fingers still greasy from the slice of Pizza Luce that lay half-eaten in a paper plate on her lap. Luce provided the postgame meal after the Lynx scrimmaged a team of male ex-collegians, a common practice for women’s college and pro teams.

McCarville still isn’t in top shape. She sat out the last six minutes of the scrimmage, and might only play 20 minutes or so Saturday night in the Lynx season opener against Connecticut at home.

Three brighteners

The sore ankle, which she turned more than a week ago, hasn’t helped. But McCarville’s face brightened when discussing three things close to her heart — her family farm in Custer, Wis., near Stevens Point; her old pal and fellow Gopher, teammate Lindsay Whalen; and her return to the WNBA after two seasons away.

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All three are intertwined.

The Lynx acquired the 6-foot-2 McCarville from New York in a three-way trade on March 1, the same deal that sent guard Candice Wiggins to Tulsa. It came six years after the Lynx passed on McCarville in a dispersal draft after the Charlotte Sting folded, choosing forward Tangela Smith instead, a move that looks ridiculous now but made some sense at the time. Smith was Charlotte’s leading scorer, while McCarville couldn’t stay healthy. The Liberty then took McCarville.

Smith never did play for the Lynx, who dealt her to Phoenix for guard Lindsay Harding, the top pick in the draft that year. Two seasons and one knee surgery later, the Lynx traded Harding to Washington for two draft picks. Neither player is still on the team.

Meanwhile, McCarville thrived in New York, winning the league’s Most Improved Player award her first season and ranking second in field goal percentage in 2008.

Three years later, a disagreement with new coach and general manager John Whisenant over her reporting to camp — she asked for a few days on the farm to chill after playing overseas, and Whisenant threatened to fine her $1,000 for each day missed — led to a season-long suspension. McCarville never played for the Liberty again.

Through it all, Whalen and McCarville mused about teaming up, reprising their Final Four run at the U in 2004 that gave women’s basketball a brief interlude at the top of Twin Cities sports mountain. It was some show — the tough, stoic, playmaking point guard with unreal body control, and the wisecracking, clever-passing center who set the meanest picks this side of Chicago. Salt and jalapeno. People loved them. 

“We talked about it every now and then, but we never really thought it would happen in the WNBA,” McCarville said. “I was in New York, she was with the [Connecticut] Sun. I was trying to get closer to home, she was trying to get closer to home.

Thoughts that it wouldn’t happen

“When Minnesota had a chance to get me in the dispersal draft and didn’t, I thought, that was it, I had lost that chance to come back here. So I kind of dropped it and thought we can try overseas. We were close, playing in the same country at times, but just never together. The fact that it happened now is amazing.”

It happened because Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the veteran center and the glue for Minnesota’s 2011 WNBA champions, retired after the Lynx lost to Indiana in last year’s finals. Reeve knew Whisenant’s replacement in New York, Bill Laimbeer, from Detroit, where Laimbeer hired her as an assistant.

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Once Reeve determined McCarville’s interest — it took multiple conversations as well as a trip to Turkey, where McCarville played briefly last winter — the teams worked out a trade.

Ultimately, McCarville relished the chance to play several hours’ drive from the 162-acre farm where she grew up, still lives and plans to build her own home. Her parents, Terry and Bonnie, parceled the land among the five McCarville siblings before Bonnie died of cancer in 2007.

“I took a little bit of time to think about it,” McCarville said. “I talked it over with my family, friends, and decided coming back to Minnesota would be a great opportunity for me, and for them to catch games. I’d be close to home, and if need be, I could get home. That was a big part of the decision-making.

“As of now, if I’m not in Minnesota, I don’t know if I’d play anywhere else. Chicago, maybe. For the most part, it was Minnesota or nothing.”

Said Whalen: “It’s a pretty unique opportunity for us all these years after college to be able to play together as pros. I think we always kind of hoped and thought maybe someday it would work out again, maybe in Europe, maybe on the USA basketball team. To have it work out here at home with the Lynx is pretty special.”

McCarville bought four courtside season tickets and posted a grid at the farm to keep track of which relatives attend which games. They will see a Lynx team that, while loaded with front-line talent – U.S. Olympians Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, plus rugged forward Rebekkah Brunson – is no longer considered the premier team in the Western Conference.

Phoenix team to beat

That would be Phoenix, which drafted Baylor’s dunking 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner to complement former league MVP Diana Taurasi, limited to eight games last year by a left hip flexor strain, and three-time All-Stars Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree, back after knee surgeries. (Ticket alert: Griner and the Mercury play here next Thursday.) Los Angeles, which added Harding as a free agent, is another trendy pick. WNBA general managers voted Phoenix the likely league champion, and the Lynx its most entertaining team.

The development of Moore, the dynamic third-year forward from UConn, may determine how far the Lynx go. Reeve said Moore needs to join Augustus as a big-time scorer, plus improve her perimeter defense so teams stop targeting her.

“I’m asking a lot from Maya,” Reeve said. “Her evolution is really important. People think she’s great now, and she certainly has been. But I told her she has at least four steps to go as a professional athlete, and we need two of them this year.”

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Moore has no problem with that. “I always have high expectations for myself,” she said. “If someone’s expectations are higher than mine, I have a problem with that. Coach Reeve’s high expectations and my high expectations are a great fit.”

As for McCarville, Reeve promised her nothing more than a roster spot.

“I told her in the offseason that I believe she and Rebekkah Brunson are our two best post players, but I told her the job was not given to her, and that she had to come in here and prove it and be better than Amber [Harris] and Dev [Devereaux Peters],” said Reeve, meaning her two young returning reserve forwards. “And I would say that as a basketball player, she is.

“But whether she can keep herself on the floor would help. I need to have a player that’s dependable in a starting position.”

McCarville bolted her Turkish team in January because, she said, she wasn’t getting paid. So her conditioning lagged behind everyone else when camp started. Then McCarville injured her ankle, missing the second of Minnesota’s two exhibition games. Reeve hoped to play McCarville 25 minutes a game at first and build from there but realizes that was too ambitious.

“You’re looking at eight to 10 games for her to get back into where she’s doing things a little more easily, rather than being tired most of the time that she’s out there,” Reeve said. “It looks to me like she’s trying to push through being tired and trying to play basketball. So she’s got some work to do.”

Enthusiastic while waiting

While working toward that, McCarville plans to be enthusiastic and supportive. In the final seconds Wednesday night, after Whalen drove for the winning points on a twisting, off-balance layup in traffic while drawing a foul, McCarville ran onto the court pumping a fist, as if the game meant something.

“I saw the play before it happened, because I knew exactly what she was going to do,” McCarville said, grinning. “She gets that look. It’s vintage Whalen. You know it’s coming but you can’t stop it. It was awesome. Before she scored it, I was already at the free throw line celebrating. That’s my girl.”

Later in the locker room, McCarville made a show of presenting a slab of pizza to Whalen at her seat, as if delivered on a velvet pillow.

“They definitely have an easy-going chemistry, like sisters, from back when they were playing together,” Moore said. “They’re both great passers, and they can finish as well. When you have two really good passers on the court, you’re going to get open shots. I’m not worried about us getting shots. Having not to worry about that is just going to let us be more free to score in many different ways.”