Lynx win for Whalen, face Sparks in opening round of playoffs

Minnesota holds off Mystics, 88-83

Lindsay Whalen acknowledges more than 13,000 fans in attendance after her retirement ceremony. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Lynx.
Lindsay Whalen acknowledges more than 13,000 fans in attendance after her retirement ceremony. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Lynx.

Minneapolis – The last regular-season game between the Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics Sunday drew a sellout crowed of 13,013 fans, who screamed and cheered their team to a narrow 88-83 win over their visiting opponents.

Coming into the match up, the playoff seeding for the hosts was already set, as the Lynx had clinched seventh. But ask anyone at the arena why they came to the game, and they all gave the same reason.

Lindsay Whalen.

The 15-year-veteran announced her retirement just six days earlier, and there wasn’t an empty set in the house after the game, as the four-time WNBA champion and multi-year All-Star was honored in a ceremony on “Whay day.”

Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said she was especially pleased that her team was able to close out the win and snap a three-game losing streak the same day the point guard was to be honored.

“It was Lindsay Whalen’s last time at Target Center as a competitor in the WNBA during the regular season,” Reeve said. “I think we would all like to give her another chance to come back here but we’ll just take it one day at a time. I’m just so happy for her. Everything went as we had hoped in terms of winning the game, Lindsay playing well, enjoying it, her fans getting to enjoy her, just really good things for us today. At the end of the day, it was a fun way to end the regular season.”

Sylvia Fowles led the Lynx with 26 points and 14 rebounds to become the league’s all-time single-season rebounds leader, with 408. Maya Moore added 16 points and Cecilia Zandalasini, 12. Kristi Toliver led Washington with 17 points, while Elena Delle Donne added 11.

A native of nearby Hutchinson, Whalen began her career playing for the Connecticut Sun under coach Mike Thibault, who now coaches the Mystics. He spoke highly of Whalen leading up to the game, where his team had a chance to grab the No. 2 playoff spot. But those dreams died at halftime, as the Atlanta Dream’s win in Las Vegas sewed up that seed.

Tied at 24 after the first quarter, both Minnesota and Washington got more aggressive as the game wore on, battling back and forth down low. The match up of the night between Fowles and LaToya Sanders became physical, with extra pushes and elbows when the referees weren’t looking. Fowles won the battle in the first half, outscoring Sanders 12-2 while also outrebounding her 8-2.

“Yeah Sylvia had a great game, she was just a monster, especially on the boards,” Delle Donne said.

If the first half was described as physical, the second half was vigorous, to say the least. Bodies flying across the floor and extra subtle pushes on screens added to trash talking by both teams. Every time the Mystics went on a mini-run, the Lynx were right there to tie the game back up. Whalen’s energy in the last regular-season home game of her career lit a fuse under the crowd and gave her team the home court advantage they had lacked for much of the 2018 season, which was chock full of losing streaks.

Whalen’s three-point shot with 8:22 left in the game gave Minnesota a 70-69 lead, and the team never looked back. Zandalasini followed up Whalen’s shot with a basket of her own and Temi Fagbenle provided a spark off the bench, scoring two consecutive baskets to become the fifth Minnesota player of the night to reach double figures.

Fowles contributed her biggest baskets of the night when the Lynx needed them most, including two baskets off offensive rebounds when Washington was making one last push. Minnesota outscored the visitors, 23-16 in the fourth quarter en route to the victory. Whalen finished with 10 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals.

Thibault and his staff became aware of the Dream’s win at halftime, which gave his team the third seed, so he rested the starters in the fourth quarter in preparation for playing at home on Thursday.

“I think we did a good job at focusing on the game plan today,” guard Ariel Atkins said. “I mean, we had little falls here and there, but I think we did good on trying to emulate what coach wanted us to do today.”

At Whalen’s ceremony, not only did her coach and teammates speak, but so did Thibault. In support of Whalen’s new job as coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Thibault wore a tie with the school logo and encouraged fans to attend Gophers games. His daughter Carly is an assistant coach for Whalen.

Reeve talked about Whalen’s grit and positive attitude as a leader. Forward Rebekkah Brunson, who has been in Minnesota with Whalen for her entire tenure, talked about the number of non-alcoholic drinks the two have shared, before listing off Whalen’s regular coffee order. Finally, it was Whalen’s turn to speak.

Her speech covered everything from taking up basketball as a child to vegan lasagna. On hand were her parents, her siblings and her grandparents. In typical Whalen fashion, her discourse felt more like a comedy skit than a goodbye speech. She talked about her teammates, and they presented her with gifts afterwards.

The Lynx turn around tomorrow and head to Los Angeles, where they will play the Sparks in a loser-out game. For the last two seasons, the two teams have played each other in fierce five-game Finals series, which they split.

“Like we say we’re back to work,” Fowles said. “We play L.A. throughout the regular season. We know what they bring and they know what we bring, so we just have to make sure we go out to L.A. prepared.”

The Sparks went 3-1 against Minnesota in the regular season, but like the Lynx, have struggled of late, and have lost four of their last five games.