Minnesota Home for Women’s Hoops

MINNETONKA, Minn. — Cheryl Reeve was once between weightlifting sets at a Twin Cities-area fitness center when she spotted a skinny youngster working on her game on an otherwise empty basketball court.

This sixth-grader had the moves, the determination and the moxie to get the attention of a WNBA head coach, and Reeve was so impressed she threw an impromptu shooting drill to get the girl to stand up. unfolds over the next half hour.

When Paige Bueckers became a star on the local high school scene a few years later, Reeve – entering her 13th season with the Minnesota Lynx – had a revelation.

“I know her!” Reeve told herself that day that she had made the connection.

This weekend, Bueckers will be back home, leading the Connecticut Huskies to their 14th straight Final Four. Minneapolis is the too-good-to-be-true host city for Bueckers, the smooth-shooting sophomore guard returning from a serious knee injury midseason.

“He’s a generational talent,” Reeve said Tuesday, reflecting on that first chance meeting with Bueckers, who in 2021 became the first rookie to win the AP Women’s National Player of the Year award. “You can spot them at a very young age. I was really happy to see it was a young girl, and I had to admit it. I didn’t know what it was going to become, but I was happy that she was there and I wanted to let him know.”

As the northernmost state in the union with a long history of producing top talent on the ice, Minnesota is understandably labeled as hockey country. It’s also a basketball-loving region, from the four-time WNBA champion Lynx to little girls learning to pass and dribble.

A progressive culture provided fertile ground for Title IX advances to spur the growth of the women’s game, and the arrival of the Lynx in 1999 gave the Twin Cities a professional team to follow. One of their top stars was Lindsay Whalen, who grew up in Minnesota, stayed home to play for the state’s flagship university and led the Gophers to their only Final Four in 2004.

According to the most recent participation survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, conducted after the 2018-2019 school year, Minnesota has the highest per capita rate of female prep basketball players with 12,073 .

Minnesota had 15 nominees for the McDonald’s Women’s All-American Game, which was played Tuesday night in Chicago. The only states with more nominees were California, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

Whalen, who retired after a 15-year career as a WNBA player and is now the head coach of her alma mater, signed a four-player recruiting class to the Gophers for next season which was ranked 10th in the nation by ESPN. The entire quartet hails from the Twin Cities region.

“Anyone who fits our program, we’ll recruit them, but there’s no question — being here where there’s so much talent — we recruit very hard for the state,” Whalen said the fall last.

One of those players is Amaya Battle, who hails from the same dynasty at Hopkins High School that sent Bueckers to UConn two years ago. The Royals won the Minnesota Class 4A State Championship earlier this month, their only loss of the season against Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

“There’s definitely a feeling of having to perform well to put Minnesota on the map,” Battle said, looking forward to continuing her college career. “Minnesota players are good. It may help inspire other young players to stay home.”

The Hopkins campus is about 10 miles west of Target Center, where the national semifinals will be played Friday night. The Royals’ head coach is Tara Starks, who has been Bueckers’ longtime coach on the summer circuit and has known her since she was in fifth grade.

As she watched her team practice recently at the Lindbergh Center, the Royals’ home gym, Starks marveled at the game’s growth in the decades since she played for another powerhouse. of the area, Minneapolis North.

“We just packed up and went to the park and played. Our gym teacher was our high school basketball coach,” said Starks, whose daughter is a graduate assistant on staff at UConn. “The opportunities and all the things that are offered now are so different now than when I was playing.”

Including having a WNBA team in town to admire.

“You’re in your backyard or you go to the playground, when you’re younger and you’re working on your game, you can emulate Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore,” Reeve said. “We are so blessed here in Minnesota. I never want to take it for granted.

“We’re one of 12 cities across the country to provide this amazing opportunity for girls and women, as well as boys, because I think it’s important for boys to see this. They grow up understanding that it’s normal when they look up to their female counterparts and see what they are doing.”

Bueckers is one of those Minnesota-area basketball-loving kids who grew up in the Lynx era, and now she’s well on her way to becoming one of those oft-imitated players herself.

“People gravitate towards her. She’s the kind of kid you can’t help but love,” said Starks, who proudly sports a Bueckers jersey at home. “His impact has just been ridiculous, and it will continue to be that way.”

Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers (5) heads for the lane against NC State during the first quarter of the NCAA Women’s Tournament Eastern Regional Finals college basketball game Monday, March 28, 2022, at Bridgeport, Conn. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Photo Minnesota women’s head coach Lindsay Whalen speaks during the Big Ten NCAA college basketball media days in Indianapolis on Oct. 8, 2021. Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen signed a recruiting class nationally hailed for next season, with the four incoming players from the state. The arrival of the NCAA Women’s Final Four in Minneapolis this weekend helped shine a spotlight on the state’s growing talent pool. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)