Former Gophers Whalen, McCarville reunite as Lynx

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s hometown tandem hankered for this kind of reunion over the course of a decade.

The reconvening of former University of Minnesota teammates Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville could’ve taken place in a European league. It could’ve happened in international play. The pair could’ve wound up together on any of the WNBA’s other 11 franchises.

But two very different professional basketball journeys have converged right where they commenced.

Perfect, Whalen said at the team’s media day Thursday.

“It’s a pretty unique opportunity for us, after all these years after college to now be able to play together as pros,” said Whalen, entering her fourth year with the Lynx. “I think we all just kind of hoped and thought someday it would work out again.

“To have it work out here, at home, with the Lynx is pretty special.”

Thursday’s gathering in the Target Center’s Lifetime Fitness center gave the pair its first opportunity in nine years to don matching game attire. Before the Lynx’s 2011 championship run, Whalen and McCarville led the Gophers to a 2004 Final Four appearance — the state’s primary watershed women’s hoops moment.

Acquired from New York in March, McCarville hopes to play a role in yet another, even if it’s not quite as central as her first go-round with Whalen.

“It’s kind of her team, her hometown,” said McCarville, who hasn’t played in a WNBA game since 2010. “It’s a different level. She’s more than welcomed me to the team, helped me in any way possible.”

That included several pre-camp workouts this spring with Whalen, whose 10-year veteran status renders her a sort of on-floor coach. Explanation of plays, defensive calls, encouragement, criticism, and good old-fashioned humor — it was all there for McCarville upon her return to Minneapolis.

“Before training camp even started,” McCarville said, “we were starting to click together just like the old days.”

Those days saw McCarville and Whalen’s inside-outside dynamic carry the Gophers to their only trip past the NCAA regional semifinals. A year older than her post counterpart, Whalen graduated as the most prolific scorer in program history. McCarville still holds the school record for career shooting percentage.

The Connecticut Sun selected Whalen No. 4 overall in 2004, making her the highest Big Ten draft pick in WNBA history until the Charlotte Sting used the top pick on McCarville a year later. The northern natives (Whalen is from Hutchinson, Minn., McCarville from Stevens Point, Wis.) ascended to everyday contributor status during their young professional careers.

Then, the two branched on polar opposite trajectories.

The Lynx swapped the 2010 draft’s No. 2 overall pick for Whalen following her sixth season with the Sun, sparking a wave of local interest in the franchise. One season later, Whalen scored a career-high 13.6 points per game in helping Minnesota to its lone championship. Olympic gold last summer in London and a repeat WNBA Finals appearance followed.

The entire time, McCarville sat at home in Wisconsin and watched.

She’d been acquired by New York via the 2007 WNBA Dispersal Draft and spent four productive years with the Liberty. But McCarville sat out both the 2011 and 2012 seasons after new coach and general manager John Whisenant denied her request to spend a couple days in Wisconsin upon her return from professional play in the Italian League.

She ran into a similar roadblock overseas this past winter, leaving behind Canik Belediyesi in Turkey when she said the team wasn’t paying her.

Now 30 years old and more than two years removed from any WNBA action, McCarville is scrambling to catch up.

“Honestly, really far behind,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said Thursday of McCarville’s readiness. “You know, she was a little bit behind the eight-ball because of where she was. There was a time when she was thinking about maybe not playing basketball, so some things fell off for her.”

Which makes a guiding, familiar presence like Whalen so crucial, especially with the season opener only 16 days away.

“I think she’s coming in here with kind of a fresh start,” Whalen said of her longtime friend, whom she’s faced in European play on occasion. “I think to now come here and kind of be with this team and be back in her kind of second home, I think, is really exciting for her. I think it’s really given her another chance to come in and prove herself and continue to show the great player that she is.”

Whalen’s role running the show is solidified, though she does have rookie protégé Lindsey Moore to share minutes with. Reeves said McCarville is one of Minnesota’s best post options, when healthy and in top condition, and has “got a job on our roster.”

A 100-percent McCarville also means more opportunities to set up her old teammate from the paint, and vice versa.

“The chemistry is there,” Reeve said, “but I don’t know that it’s impacted our team just yet, because we’ve only been here for 10 days. Like I said, Janel’s been struggling a bit early with not being here. I think that component will evolve more as we start to play games and the rotation is set.”

No matter how the minutes are dispersed, McCarville and Whalen’s second Minnesota merger adds another friendly face to an already tight-knit bunch. Minus departed Taj McWilliams-Franklin (retired) and Candice Wiggins (traded to Tulsa as part of the three-team deal that brought McCarville to Minneapolis), the Lynx’s championship-caliber core remains mostly intact.

That’s good news for a team built on cohesiveness, small forward Maya Moore contends.

“They definitely have an easygoing chemistry between other, like sisters from when they were playing together,” Moore said of Whalen and McCarville. “They’re both great chemistry people. They’re about the team.”

Notes: The Lynx waived center Jessica Adair on Thursday, trimming the roster to 14 players, including centers Janel McCarville and Shawnice Wilson.  . . . Due to family reasons, forward Devereaux Peters wasn’t at media day and won’t make the team’s trip to Bismarck, N.D., for its Saturday exhibition against Washington.  . . . Rookie guard Ta’Shauna “Sugar” Rodgers also will miss the preseason contest; Georgetown’s all-time leading scorer is participating in commencement ceremonies Saturday. She’s missed practice time with a minor quadriceps injury but is expected to return to action next week.  . . . Minnesota’s second and final exhibition is Tuesday, May 21 at noon at the Target Center against Connecticut. The regular season opens Saturday, June 1 at home against the same club.