MINNEAPOLIS - Lindsay Whalen, along with the highest-ranked freshmen class in University of Minnesota women’s basketball history, took the stage at the Minnesota State Fair on Wednesday as fans cheered an applauded.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect day without a cloud in the sky as Mara Braun, Nia Holloway, Mallory Heyer and Amaya Battle sat with Whalen to talk about the excitement that is the future of the Gophers. Four local high school stars, all ranked in the top-100 in the country as high school seniors and all will wear the Maroon and Gold this season. The Gophers spent the last eight weeks in summer works as those freshmen, minus Holloway, out for the season with a knee injury, meshed with five transfers and the few veterans back with the team.
"That’s been something that’s been the highlight of all our summers is just getting the whole group. Just getting everybody in the gym. It was a very special summer, that’s for sure," Whalen said.
Whalen gave her players the day off, and most of them chose to come out to the Great Minnesota Get-Together to spend a summer day outside and meet their fans in-person.
"The really cool thing is I had (players) reaching out to me. They wanted to come and be a part of it. They wanted to commit to their teammates and show support. I’m sure they’ll have a Pronto Pup and a corn dog and enjoy the fair too, that’s part of it," Whalen said. "It’s a special group, they are really in it for each other and that’s been really fun to see."
Whalen’s go-to State Fair food? The Pronto Pup, though she calls it a corn dog.
"Banquet on a stick," she said.
Next weekend, Whalen will be recognized among the greatest to ever play basketball as she’s inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. She won four WNBA titles with the Lynx, Olympic gold twice and led the Gophers to their lone Final Four appearance in 2004.
Now also running the Gophers’ program as the head coach, she’s finalizing logistics to get family and friends out for her induction. Her presenters? Dawn Staley and Charles Barkley.
"I felt like Dawn and I have always had a connection as being point guards and she’s somebody who I looked up to and I got to play against her for a few years," Whalen said. Charles, I said ‘Go big or go home.’ "He was my favorite player growing up, I loved all his Phoenix Suns teams, I love the way he played. I was like let’s just see what happens, I sent him a text. I was like there’s no way, he’s probably got hundreds of phone calls a day, so I’m not going to bother him. He responded the next day and said he’d be honored. Here we go."
BEN JOHNSON TALKS STATE FAIR, DAWSON GARCIA’S ELIGIBILITY
Ben Johnson was hired by Mark Coyle to keep Minnesota’s top talent home, and two former Twin Cities stars joined him at the State Fair on Wednesday in Jamison Battle and Dawson Garcia. Battle is the Gophers’ top returning scorer, and Garcia recently got some very good news from the NCAA: He was granted immediate eligibility after transferring home from North Carolina.
The former McDonald’s All-American used is one-time free transfer to go from Marquette to the Tar Heels. He came home after health issues within his family related to COVID-19.
"A guy that’s been through it, I think it’s huge. I couldn’t be more excited for him. To get the waiver, with everything that’s happened, it’s huge for him and huge for our program," Johnson said.
Garcia spoke Wednesday at the State Fair for the first time since his eligibility became official. He worked all summer as if he was going to play, but it’s never a sure thing with the NCAA.
"I’m excited, I’m excited to get things started and that’s kind of how I was working this summer too. I didn’t know what the result was going to be, obviously I had a good feeling but now I’m just excited to get to it for real," Garcia said.
Like Whalen, Johnson and his players took the day to engage with fans, take pictures and do media appearances. Minnesota turned heads last year, going 9-0 in the non-conference and getting a Big Ten road win at Michigan before finishing 13-17, and 4-16 in Big Ten play.
Expectations are high this year with a mix of transfers, and a freshman class that features local standouts Braeden Carrington, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Pharrel Payne.
"It’s great. I think any time that you can connect with the people in our state that support our program, that support our guys, is a good thing," Johnson said. "I really believe when we’re playing well and we’re playing good basketball and Williams Arena is packed, it’s the toughest out in the Big Ten. For us to win a Big Ten championship and to get where we want to go, we need everybody’s help and everybody’s support. We’re going to try to fill that place like never before."