MINNEAPOLIS — The biggest ovation of the afternoon at Williams Arena came during pregame introductions for hometown hero, WNBA champion and former Golden Gopher Lindsay Whalen, the first-year Minnesota head coach. The second-most emphatic cheer came during garbage time of a 20-point Gopher romp for a hometown kid playing for the visitors.
“There was no part of me that ever thought I’d be playing against [Whalen] and her team in The Barn in front of my family and friends,” said Cornell women’s basketball freshman Annika Hoff, who played her first collegiate minutes in the Red’s 65-45 loss to No. 23 Minnesota.
Hoff, a Northfield, Minnesota, native, checked out of the game at Williams Arena — lovingly called ‘The Barn’ in Minnesota — in the final minutes to applause from family, friends, high school coaches and some Gopher fans after scoring six fourth-quarter points in Cornell’s loss to the nationally-ranked Gophers.
The squad from Ithaca, overmatched by Minnesota from the opening tip to the final buzzer, has nearly enough players from the Land of 10,000 Lakes on its roster to fill a starting lineup: Hoff, junior Danielle Jorgenson, freshman Theresa Grace Mbanefo and junior Laura Bagwell-Katalinitch. Jorgenson, Mbanefo and Bagwell-Katalinitch each scored two points in the Black Friday afternoon contest in Minneapolis. The four got a chance to take the court together late in the game.
Hoff had played on this court before, for Northfield High School in the 2018 state tournament, and Friday was a “dream come true” all over again. She said assistant coach David Elliott told her family about the Red’s upcoming trip to the Twin Cities when he came to watch Hoff play at The Barn last March when she was a senior at Northfield.
“When we had the opportunity to play in high school it was a dream come true because I always wanted to play at The Barn,” Hoff said. “And then when I found out I was going to get the opportunity to do it in college, too, it was just amazing to hear.”
Jorgenson and Bagwell-Katalinitch played AAU basketball together in high school, so go way back in their shared path from Minnesota to Cornell. Like Hoff, Bagwell-Katalinitch and Jorgenson played at The Barn in high school (Bagwell-Katalinitch won the State tournament her senior year).
“[Minnesota] seems to be more of a hotbed for basketball than a lot of people realize,” said Jorgenson, who grew up following the Gophers and is a “huge” Lynx fan.
Jorgenson said knowing that Whalen was likely scouting her as an opponent prior to the game after rooting for Whalen throughout the now-coach’s WNBA career was a special experience.
“[Whalen has] been a huge idol for me and I know the other Minnesotans can attest to that as well,” Jorgenson said. “She’s a legend in that state.”
Hoff, who grew up watching the Gophers, has also been a fan of Whalen since the recently retired point guard helped the Lynx to their first of four WNBA championships in the span of seven years, a few years after guiding the Gophers to the 2004 Final Four and earning her No. 13 a place in The Barn’s rafters.
“When I was younger there was no part of me that ever thought I’d be playing against [the Gophers], let alone scoring which was just really fun,” Hoff said. “I also grew up watching Lindsay Whalen play for the Lynx and I was there when she won her championship when [the Lynx] played at The Barn in 2017.”
Hoff’s story of North Star State high school star-turned Cornellian isn’t unique on head coach Dayna Smith’s team. Jorgenson and Bagwell-Katalinitch, both juniors, trained with Hoff and Mbanefo in St. Paul over the summer and helped the pair of freshmen transition to college basketball. Do the four share a special bond?
“Yes, 100 percent,” Hoff said. “And the rest of our team has heard a lot of Minnesota references because of the fact that practically a third of our team is from Minnesota.”
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“Our other teammates actually make fun of our Minnesotan accents sometimes and the fact that we say ‘pop’ [instead of soda],” Jorgenson said.
The Cornell basketball team is more influenced by a professional football team than a casual observer would guess. A Minnesotan contestant on “The Bachelorette” piqued the interest of both reality TV fans and members of team who spent the summer working at a basketball camp for girls in Ithaca.
“We were watching ‘The Bachelorette’ and one of the characters did the motion of ‘Skol’ and suddenly like all four of us were doing the Skol chant, and the three people who weren’t Minnesotans were looking at us like we were absolutely insane,” Hoff said. “Now all of our teammates know what ‘skol’ means and [say] ‘skol’ even though they’re not from Minnesota.”
The four have benefitted from hailing from a state where women’s basketball is, as Jorgenson put it, “part of the culture,” despite a national sports world that tends to favor men’s sports.
“I went to my first Lynx game in 2011 which was the first year they won a championship and I’ve been going ever since, and prior to that I didn’t have any knowledge of the WNBA,” Hoff said. “Watching them has definitely been an inspiration for me and it’s really cool that people talk about women’s basketball [in Minnesota].”