Friday, February 8, 2008

They were giants this night

It's a long way from those colossal big man battles, such as the ones Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell once had. But what made them great, was how they brought out the best in each other when they played.

This is what occurred Thursday night at Williams Arena. Overall, it was Illinois visiting Minnesota, but the game's subplot was the two sophomore big women: Ashley Ellis-Milan for the Gophers, and Jenna Smith of Illinois, and how they went at each other.

Both are close friends, once summer AAU teammates in high school. They still are friends: the two second-year centers hugged at center court when they meet during pre-game intros.

I have known Smith since she was a youngster, and watched her grow into a fine player. She always had the drive and the determination to get better. I only known Ellis-Milan since she arrived at Minnesota a couple of years ago.

Both have pleasant personalities off the court. But on the court . . . watch out.

"Before the game, we chit-chatted," says Ellis-Milan, a St. Paul Central graduate of Smith, the Bloomington Kennedy grad and former Ms. Minnesota. "But when it's time (to play), and gets down to those four lines (that encloses the basketball court), it's game time and we don't talk much. We just play."

And after the 6-2 Ellis-Milan outjumped the 6-3 Smith for the jump ball, the two young female hoopsters did just that.

"She is a challenge for me," continues the Gopher center on Smith, "and tonight it was a challenge for her, too."

Both Smith and Ellis-Milan fills a specific role for their respective squads:

"J.J. is our All-American, our go-to player on the inside," explains Illini Coach Jolette Law.

While Smith is doubled and triple-teamed, which Minnesota did throughout Thursday's contest, Ellis-Milan rarely demands such attention. "Ashley gets her points (when) we go into our secondary offense," notes Gopher Coach Pam Borton. "We don't call a play for her."

However, on this night, Ellis-Milan won the statisical battle: In the first half, she shot 4-for-7 for 10 points in 17 minutes; Smith shot 3-for-4 for 6 points. She had two more rebounds than Ellis-Milan (4 to 2), and one more assist (one, as opposed to zero for Ellis-Milan). But the Gopher was one-up on Smith in steals (1 to 0).

"Our kids did a pretty good job on (Smith) in the first half, and limited her touches a little bit," Borton points out. "But we knew in the second half, they were going to throw it in (to her)."

After halftime, the two's real show began -- these two giants that night stood tall.

Early in the second half, Smith got called for fouling Ellis-Milan -- she thought she had all ball as she attempted to block Ellis-Milan's short jumper at the rim.

On the next possession, Smith immediately went at her friend, and connected on a back-her-down, semi-hook.

Later, the two again was woman-to-woman, post-to-post, as Ellis-Milan fouled Smith while shooting. Her two free throws gave Illinois a two-point lead with almost eight minutes left in the game.

Ellis-Milan came back down court, and hit a jumper to tie the score.

Then, Smith stepped back behind the arc, and calmly swished a three-pointer, to put the Illini up by three. "She was way back there," says Ellis-Milan.

After a miss, Ellis-Milan then took over: She got three rebounds, two of them off the offensive glass. Then she really got busy.

A free throw. A layup. Another tough rebound off a missed Illini three-pointer try. Two free throws. A jump shot.

This seven-point personal run, in three-and-a-half minutes, gave Minnesota its final lead of the night.

"I didn't even know that I made seven in a row," says a surprised Ellis-Milan afterwards. "I was just out there playing. After I made a shot, I now had to get back on the defensive end and try to stop Jenna because I know they are going to throw it back inside to her."

"We were looking for her," admits teammate Emily Fox. "That is part of being a good point guard, knowing who had the hot hand, and Ashley had the hot hand tonight."

Says Law: "She was determined out there to get position, get a foul, or a basket. She put Minnesota on her back."

"Ashley took the shots that were given to her," adds Borton. "That's what makes Ashley good -- she just opens up within our offense."

Final score: Minnesota 61, Illinois 56. Both teams are even at one win apiece for the season.

Second score: Ellis-Milan 20, Smith 16.

In their first meeting this season, Smith had 20 points to lead her squad to victory over the visiting Gophers. Ellis-Milan finished with nine points.

Now the two friends are even at one game apiece.

"I really like going up against Jenna," says Ellis-Milan. "We know each other's game a lot. I am so proud of her that she had developed so quickly. She has gotten so much better."

But what about her game? Ellis-Milan says she still is working on polishing up her post moves.

When asked has Ellis-Milan joined the team's list of go-to players, Borton quickly told a reporter, "She's got 20 points and we don't call a play for her. Why start now?"

Ellis-Milan and Smith now has met four times in their two college seasons. Predictably, they have four more before their collegiate time is done.

"The next two years," says Law, "it is going to be that duel, those two going up against each other."

Says Borton: "I think they really enjoy each other's company, and playing against each other."

But both coaches quickly warn -- it isn't Chamberlain vs. Russell, or George Miken vs. anyone else.

"They will be the first one to tell you that it's not Ashley against Jenna," says Borton on the two young women. "It's Illinois against Minnesota. Those players are going to be as successful as the people who are around them. Ashley has got great players around her, and Jenna got very good players around her."

"We are not going to focus on it being Jenna and Ellis-Milan," says Law, adding, "They are two great players."

"It's going to be fun the next two years (watching the two play)," concludes Borton.

It sure was fun Thursday night.

FINALLY -- As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Minnesota Lynx hired Jennifer Gillom as assistant coach. She replaces Teresa Edwards, who is now writing a book.

"I have been looking to coach at a higher level and to come back to coach in the WNBA," says the two-time All-WNBA, who played seven seasons in the league -- six with Phoenix. She also played many seasons overseas. Gillom currently is coaching at a high school in Phoenix, and will remain there during the league off-season.

No comments: