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Only one time in Gopher women’s basketball history has the team been among the final four teams standing after a long season. A reunion of those players at a recent Gopher’s game provided an opportunity for some pleasant reminiscing.

The MSR is the only Twin Cities weekly to consistently cover the Gopher women for at least four decades, beginning with the late Kwame McDonald in the 1970s; then this reporter joined him in the late 1980s. While other local media have totally ignored the program, we always were there.

Then came 2004. The Gophers the year before reached the Sweet 16 for the first time — I watched an entire Maples Pavilion virtually go silent as they defeated third-seeded host team Stanford by 14 points. Although they later lost to Texas in the regional semis, the next season looked very bright.

Former Gophers Leslie Hill Sims (l) and Shannon Bolden Nelson at the January 12 Minnesota-Northwestern game Photo by Sophia Hantzes

Former Gophers Leslie Hill Sims (l) and Shannon Bolden Nelson at the January 12 Minnesota-Northwestern game
Photo by Sophia Hantzes

It would be their third of six straight NCAA trips, but midway through the 2003-04 season it didn’t look good when senior guard Lindsay Whalen broke her hand midway through it. But her teammates held serve until her unexpected post-season return.

Then junior Shannon Bolden was the team’s designated defensive stopper — she was assigned to guard the opponent’s best offensive player, and she always met the challenge.  Senior Leslie Hill was a key reserve but suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the season.

The MSR talked to the two young women when they and other members of the 2004 Final Four team were honored at the January 12 Minnesota-Northwestern game.

“Ten years! Everybody’s married now or having kids,” said Bolden, the Marshall, MN native. She is now married and, since 2010, the head women’s basketball coach at Northland Community College in Thief River Falls, MN. “We were so close and so tight then,” recalled Bolden Nelson. “Every time we won a game in that tournament, we won it so we could spend another week together.”

The Chicago-born Hill, now Sims, also is married, a former broadcaster, and now an independent businesswoman. She added, “We had so many funny, single moments — it’s hard to remember just one single thing. Whether it’s cutting up at practice, or on the bus cracking jokes, or whatever, it was just great to be a part of such a strong-knit group of women.”

“They don’t look a day older today,” remarked Coach Pam Borton, who a decade earlier was in her second year at Minnesota. “They still look like they can still play.”

When reminded of the cockiness displayed by the Duke players before the two teams met, Bolton said, “It’s hard to explain but we had a calm[ness] and knew the whole time [the team would be successful]. It was a secret that people were going to find out the next day.”

This reporter stood on the court in Norfolk, Virginia after watching the victorious Minnesota players become the lowest seed to reach the Final Four in six years. A week later in New Orleans, only down three with about six minutes left, they exchanged misses with eventual champion Connecticut during a four-possession stretch. Unfortunately, that would be the closest the Gophers would get in a nine-point defeat, despite being outscored only by a point in the final 20 minutes.

Regardless of the final result, the historic run was forever etched in my memory bank.   A decade later, I watched as Bolden, Hill and seven other members were recognized for their accomplishments.

“We just feel blessed to be able to be a part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Bolden. “So many great memories. We feel very lucky, very blessed.”

“It was a lot of fun,” said Borton.

“The whole year was really magical,” said Hill.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].

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