Thursday, May 22, 2008

Just another long week

You got to hand it to the WNBA's scheduling gurus. Play a game one week. Play every other day the next.

This is the case for this year's Minnesota Lynx, who played their first game Sunday (a 84-70 home triumph over Detroit). Their next game isn't until May 27 at Houston, then two nights later at Chicago before returning home May 31 to host Phoenix, then off again to play the expansion Dream at Atlanta June 3, then to Connecticut to face the Sun June 6.

This isn't unusual, just Earth, Wind and Fire-type regular scheduling -- that's the way of the (WNBA) world.

But on the other hand, it gives Don Zierden and his staff is using this week basically as another week of training camp -- much-needed time to incorporate more stuff, improve on others, and continue to build player chemistry.

After Sunday's game, "We haven't put in half of our offense," says the coach. "We ran three plays the whole game."

After Tuesday's evening practice, Coach Z further told me about his plans for the week, "We get to work on a lot of concepts right now."

The Lynx picked up Sharnee' Zoll, a 5-7 rookie guard from Virginia, on Sunday. She cleared waivers after Minnesota claimed her last Friday after she was cut by Los Angeles, who drafted her as the 29th overall pick this spring, but couldn't be added until after the game.

As a result, to make room, Crystal Smith was waived -- she played only 19 seconds in Sunday's win. I wasn't that impressed with her, however.

Zierden says that Zoll has been on his talent radar for a while. "I personally has liked Sharnee' ever since I first saw her a year ago," he admits. "I think she (can) run the ball club and make everyone around her better.

"When we got to the third round, we were hoping tht she would slide through the draft," continues Zierden.

Zoll hit her only shot attempt, a three-pointer, against Minnesota in the final preseason game, a Los Angeles double-overtime win, at Grand Forks, N.D. on Mother's Day.

With Lindsay Harding still out indefinitely with an injury, Zierden believes Zoll may be a better backup point guard than Smith, who played two WNBA seasons, originally drafted by Phoenix in the third round of the 2006 Draft, then picked up by Houston last summer after the Mercury waived her.

Finally - - -

Shay Murphy, who was named inactive for Sunday's game, seems fine with Z's decision, according to the coach. The second-year guard "has taken the challenge of being inactive . . . She is really working hard in getting better."

Zierden isn't overly concerned about starting two-guard Anna DeForge, who made only one of four shots, and misfired on both her two trey attempts, in 24 minutes Sunday. "She (DeForge) never had 34 great games in Indiana (where the seven-year veteran played last summer)," notes the Minnesota coach. "Seimone (Augustus) don't have 34 great games."

DeForge only reported on May 10 after playing overseas, helping her club to a third straight title. "She is trying to get her legs underneath her after getting back from overseas," Zierden adds. Nonetheless, the 5-10 guard poses a constant outside scoring threat on the court, which opponents won't ignore.

Monday, May 19, 2008

No first game jitters on opening night

How fitting was the Minnesota Lynx's first victory in their first game of the 2008 season. They defeated Detroit, the same team the 10-year-old WNBA franchise defeated in their first-ever game.

Tonya Edwards, the Lynx's first All-Star, scored the franchise's first basket en route to a 20 point game in a 17-point win in June, 1999, was present to witness Sunday's 84-70 triumph over the visiting Shock, last season's WNBA runners-up. She, Charmin Smith and Sonja Tate, along with Katie Smith, now with Detroit, were recognized as members of that 1999 expansion squad before the game.

As for the game itself, the hosts stayed with Detroit all throughout the first half, despite at one point, trailing the Shock early by six points. But rookie forward Charde Houston came off the bench and hit her first four shots in the first quarter. The six-foot Houston, a third round pick from Connecticut, had an eventful week: she graduated from UConn on May 11, then leads all scorers a week later in her first professional game with 21 points.

"It's one thing to be able to graduate, wear a cap and gown and walk across the stage, and then come back and beat a team no one thought we could beat," says a surprising Houston. "It was a great week for me."

It was a game in which two-time All-Star Seimone Augustus shot only 6-of-14 for 14 points. "A year ago, it was Seimone in double figures, and no one else," noted Coach Don Zierden afterwards. Fast forward a year later, Minnesota gets four players scoring in double figures, with two rookies off the bench: Houston and Candice Wiggins leading the way.

"If we play hard, we can stay in ball games," adds Coach Z.

This was most evident in the third quarter when Minnesota squandered a seven-point lead early in the third quarter, and saw Detroit tie and take a one-point lead near the three-minute mark (56-55). That would be the Shock's last lead of the night, as Wiggins got fouled by Alexis Hornbuckle, who seconds earlier hit two free throws to give her club the advantage. The Lynx's top draft choice returned the favor by hitting her two free chances, and both rookies provided the team scoring for the rest of the quarter: seven points by Houston, and Wiggins adding four points, including a huge 18-footer buzzer beater that sucked any remaining life left in the visitors, to give Minnesota a 68-60 lead.

The final quarter was all Minnesota, as the hosts' lead once swelled to 15 points midway through the quarter on Augustus' 15-foot pull-up jumper -- she had six points in a three-minute span -- the shortest shot distance was her patented eight-foot runner.

Afterwards, as reporters tried to make a big deal of the win, Zierden kept his perspective. "We got 33 more (games) to go, but today we are encouraged," he advised the press corps. He still has one of the league's youngest club, even though they grew up a little Sunday -- "baby steps," Zierden called it. "There are a lot of R's (rookies) and a lot of one's (players just in their second year as pros)," he points out.

But clearly, at first glance, the Lynx have more to work with than last season:

--Rookie Nicky Anosike started at center and scored 11 points, with four boards and three steals: "I don't think she backs down," observes Zierden on the first-year player from Tennessee holding her hold against Detroit's Cheryl Ford and Kara Braxton.

--Wiggins' opening night pro performance (15 points, four steals, two assists) confirmed why Minnesota chose her with the third overall pick: "We expected that out of her," says Coach Z matter-of-fact

--Houston showing an offensive part of her game, which wasn't often seen at UConn: "She can get better, but she's learning," notes the Lynx second-year head coach. "I did a great job, thanks to my teammates," adds the rookie.

--Noelle Quinn (four assists, zero turnovers) continues to prove that she is the team's best point guard -- her leadership is slowly emerging

--More importantly, Minnesota won without big scoring from either Augustus or Nicole Ohlde (eight points), but both players hit big shots when needed. And virtually nothing from top free-agent signee Anna DeForge (1-for-4, two points in 24 minutes).

Because of a quirk in the scheduling, Minnesota doesn't play again until May 27, a two-game road trip (at Houston and at Chicago), before returning home to face Phoenix May 31.

The extra time will be put to good use, says Zierden. "We haven't put in half of our offense," he explains. Adds Quinn, "We have time to prepare for our next opponents. We (also) can work on a lot of things."

Finally, even though the Lynx played a Detroit club playing the back end of a back-to-back, if Minnesota can play nearly half as well the rest of the way, this 10th anniversary season can be the team's best.

"On paper," Zierden concludes, "we are not as experienced as other teams but we do have energy. We need to keep playing (with) intense energy."