Tuesday, October 4, 2011

WNBA Finals: Lynx's Whalen and Dream's Miller joined in renewed rivalry


Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen was nine years old when the state took home its last professional sports title in 1991, creating a small but intense rivalry between two markets.

The WNBA was six years away from creation, and Whalen's hometown of Hutchinson, Minnesota was still known for its tie to Little Crow, chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota tribe who led his people in the Dakota War of 1862. He was killed near the city by farmers in 1863.

Fast forward 128 years, where Whalen watched the Minnesota Twins kill championship dreams of the Atlanta Braves in the World Series at her best friend's house. Minnesota fans vividly remember the seven-game series, touted by then-commissioner Fay Vincent as the best in Major League Baseball. Arguing against that notion is hard to this day, with five games decided by one run, four games decided in the final at-bat and three games going into extra innings.

Whalen's memories include seeing thousands of white homer-hankies touted by Twins fans on the CBS broadcasts, and a taunt used against the Braves with a play on their city's name.

"Give Atlanta Mylanta, make them upset," she said.

Atlanta Dream guard Coco Miller was wishing for the Twins to do just that on the Braves. The Rochester native was 13 years old when the two teams met in the World Series.

"I came to the parade and missed school for that. It was a big thing for the state of Minnesota," she said.

To this day, Whalen gets chills recalling Kirby Puckett's heroics in game six, where the late Twins Hall of Fame center fielder robbed an extra base hit from Ron Gant against the Plexiglass barrier in the top of the third inning. Puckett would later deliver a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 11th to win game six, immortalized by CBS play-by-play man Jack Buck with the line, "And we'll see you tomorrow night!"

"Every Minnesotan still gets chills with that. He lifted the whole state on his back," Whalen said.

Game seven is no less chilling for Twins fans, with St. Paul native Jack Morris pitching 10 shutout innings, rebuffing several attempts from manager Tom Kelly to remove him from the mound. Morris' stubborn demeanor would be vindicated in the bottom of the 10th, when pinch-hitter Gene Larkin scored Dan Gladden on a bloop single to seal a 1-0 victory and a World Series title.

"I remember wanting to go to the Metrodome for the celebration, but we had school," Whalen said. "I still have my homer hanky somewhere."

"My parents were watching TV and I just heard them screaming, because they're big fans too. It was fun to be a part of all that," Miller said.

Retribution for Atlanta would come in the 1998 NFC playoffs, when the Falcons visited the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome in the NFC Conference Championship on Jan. 17, 1999. The Vikings were heavy Super Bowl favorites with their NFL-best 15-1 regular season record, whose vast pool of talent included rookie wide receiver Randy Moss, fan favorite Cris Carter, veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham and defensive stalwart John Randle, a Hall of Fame inductee.

The Falcons were playing both the upset and sentimental cards, even with a 14-2 record that year. Head coach Dan Reeves had recovered enough from quadruple bypass surgery to assume the helm throughout Atlanta's post-season.

The Falcons stayed the course against the Vikings, and capitalized when Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal with 2:07 left in the fourth quarter that would have virtually ensured victory. On Atlanta's next possession, Terence Mathis caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Chris Chandler to tie the score at 27, and Minnesota head coach Dennis Green had Cunningham take a knee with his team deep in their own territory in the closing seconds, opting to win in overtime than risk a costly turnover.

Green's strategy ultimately failed, as Falcons kicker Morten Andersen nailed a 38-yard field goal with 3:08 remaining in overtime, giving the Falcons their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

"That's my worst sports day ever," Whalen said. "I was at my aunt and uncle's (house) in Grand Forks. I was at a recruiting visit in North Dakota and I made my mom stay for the whole game."

Just as Green's decision haunted Vikings fans, Whalen's choice left a ghoulish mark.

"We ended up getting stuck in a snowstorm at Fargo, had to stay in a hotel that night. We didn't get any sleep. We had to drive the next day, in freezing cold temperatures, back to Hutchinson. I was sick for a week because I was so upset about the way it went down. That was our year," she said.

Miller was a sophomore at the University of Georgia during the memorable Falcons-Vikings meeting. Despite leaving the North Star State for the land of peaches, Miller stayed true to the Vikings' purple and gold colors.

"No matter what state I live in, I'm always going to be a Vikings fan. It's never good to see them lose," she said.

Whalen is glad to continue a series laden with historic moments, with her Lynx etching a marker following their 88-74 victory in game 1 of the WNBA Finals. 15,258 fans waving white pom-poms watched Rebekkah Brunson contribute 26 points and 11 rebounds while fighting a chest cold, while Taj McWilliams-Franklin got eight points and 10 rebounds despite suffering a stomach flu.

"We've done everything we can all season to get here, and we're going to do everything we can to bring it home," Whalen said.

With Dream center Erika de Souza back after helping her Brazilian team win an Olympic qualifying tournament in Colombia, Miller is confident about tilting the "rubber match" in Atlanta's favor despite her Minnesota origins.

"Now that I'm on the opposite side, hopefully Atlanta will prevail this time," Miller said.

Should the Lynx miss a game-clinching field goal and get a final possession to attempt a victory in the closing seconds of regulation, Whalen and her teammates will take no knees.

"We're going to play to win, baby. It's the only way to go," she said.


Click play below to listen to a one-on-one with Lynx guard Monica Wright prior to game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

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