Sunday, June 29, 2008

Twins tops interleague play

Minnesota's 6-0 win Sunday over the Milwaukee Brewers completes interleague play for the 2008 season.

The Twins finished with a 14-4 mark over National League opponents this season and improved to 120-90 overall. They joined the Oakland A's and the New York Yankees as the only three AL clubs with at least 120 interleague victories.

Manager Ron Gardenhire says his Twins don't have the big boppers that the Yankees or Boston have so his team aren't that overly affected when Minnesota plays in National League parks, where the designated hitter rule isn't used.

After Sunday's win, the manager offered the following explanation: "I don't have any theories on it. We don't have a team with a huge DH, so when we go into a National League park, we are not losing a player like (Boston's) David Ortiz.

"When we come home, (NL opponents) aren't really National League teams when they come in here because they have to use the DH," notes Gardenhire.

Later, "I don't know if you can put your finger on it," he says of the Twins' annual interleague success. "We actually have grind it out for runs -- we don't have big 3-4-5 (hitters), so it bodes well (against NL teams)."

Now with interleague play over, it's back to the AL Central -- Detroit will be in town for a three-game series.

"They are playing well again," Gardenhire says of the Tigers. "It will be a big series and a lot of fun," he concludes.


As some players, such as the Twins' Craig Monroe, have trouble adjusting from being an everyday player to the DH role, Jason Kubel seemingly has settled in it quite well:

"I think for Kubel, it is not that so much he prefers DH (but that) it just doesn't bother him," explains Gardenhire. "His mindset can handle it."

However, Kubel, who's hitting over .600 during this home stand, is not unlike any other player -- he wants to play everyday. But more importantly, "He loves to hit and loves to swing (the bat)," adds the manager. And the DH gets at least four times at bat -- every day.

Friday, June 27, 2008

First barometer

Don Zierden told his young Minnesota Lynx team prior to Thursday's game against Sacramento that the contest was a barometer game.

"Charles, what we challenge our players before the game (is that) if you want eventually to be a team that people are going to take seriously, you have to go toe-to-toe with the best," the coach admits.

Throw out Sacramento's sub-.500 record: the Monarchs, who won the 2005 WNBA title, will be in the Western Conference playoff hunt all season. They are tough-minded, tough on the board and tough shooters. In a word, just plain tough.

In their last meeting on June 12, Sacramento threw around both their experience and muscle and dropped the Lynx 82-78 at the downtown Minneapolis basketball arena. It's been over a year since Minnesota saw a win against them.

That drought ended Thursday.

In the shadow of the NBA Draft, where boo-hoo of reporters were all over the place -- and where Star-Tribune stone age columnist Sid Hartman, who once said he wouldn't be caught dead at a women's basketball game, was sitting corpse-like in the stands during the final minutes of the Lynx's 80-76 win.

It's too early to be the playoffs but the air surrounding Thursday's game, sure did smell like one.

Hard fouls given indiscriminately to anyone brave enough to drive to the hoop. Shots emphatically batted out of bounds -- both teams combined for six blocked shots.

Every basket was a premium: Minnesota shot just under 45 percent; Sacramento finished exactly at 40 percent. Every defensive stop was crucial.

The difference was that no Lynx player didn't waste a moment in doing something positive.

"We dug ourselves a hole last game," Minnesota guard Noelle Quinn says, pointing to her team's 19-point deficit, only to get back to within a point, before running out of gas.

This time, both teams were physically spent, but the host Lynx (8-6) had just enough to withstand the Monarchs (now 6-8) at every turn.

Without resulting to tired-old boxing references, I would say it was Minnesota's best game played so far because of its significance. But this didn't stop Zierden from doing so.

"I though we fought tonight all the way through," he notes. "Two or three times, they (Sacramento) made runs and tonight we found a way to keep fighting back."

"It was like a playoff game," remarked first-year center Nicky Anosike.

"Sacramento is in our conference," adds Quinn. "These games always are important."

Seimone Augustus, who battled an upset stomach all night, had 23 points to lead all scorers, including icing four big free throws in the final eight seconds to keep her team's distance to the never-quit visitors.

But according to her coach, it was Augustus' defense that was the game's star, as she held Sacramento's Nicole Powell, who finished with 20 points, to 5-of-13 shooting.

"We are not putting Seimone on a weak offensive player," explains Coach Z. He praised Augustus' "great (defensive) job on Powell. "We are challenging her."

But it was more than Seimone this night.

Candice Wiggins added 17 points, including shooting 50 percent (3-for-6) from the three-point line. The Stanford rookie chipped in a couple of hard fouls to boot.

Charde Houston hit only one shot out of six, but it came off a great Wiggins assists to give Minnesota a four-point cushion early in the fourth quarter, after Sacramento ran off five points to cut Minnesota's lead to just a basket. "Charde played with energy," says Zierden on the Connecticut first-year player, who got credited for only one steal but created several more deflections.

Anosike"played 35 minutes of hard defense," notes Zierden. "We've been on Nicky to step it up," he points out. Says the Tennessee rookie, "I definitely go through struggles every day, but it's getting more and more easier every time I step on the floor."

Kristen Rasmussen, the only Minnesota player who didn't score, "was big" with two rebounds and a steal, praised Zierden.

LaToya Thomas, newly acquired from Detroit last weekend, made her only shot attempt on an offensive tip-in.

Even Lindsay Harding, who still trying to get her legs under her, didn't register an assist, but the second-year point guard scored eight points and had two rebounds.

Despite picking up four questionable fouls, Vanessa Hayden-Johnson went 2-for-3 for four points in five limited minutes.

"Everybody who came off the bench did something positive," says Zierden.

It was Minnesota's first "barometer" game this season. Zierden's Lynx Thursday withstood the inside heat, stood their ground, and left victorious.

"There are many barometers to come," he predicts, starting with Saturday's game at San Antonio.


Quinn has only 10 assists in her last six games, including two in Thursday's win against Sacramento. The second-year starting point guard admits that she must improve as a floor leader. "It's important for me to stay aggressive," she adds.

Guard Sharnee Zoll was waived after the game Thursday. The guard, who Minnesota picked up on waivers after being cut by Los Angeles just before the season started, only saw action in six games, averaging barely two points. The 5-7 Zoll, who was placed on the inactive list four of the last five games, last played against the Monarchs June 12 and hit one of two free throws.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Welcome back, D

In the late 1970s, it was "Welcome Back, Kotter." On Tuesday night at the downtown Minneapolis basketball arena, for the Minnesota Lynx, it was welcome back, defense.

The hosts held New York to 37 percent shooting, out-rebounded them by three, 33 to 30, and allowed only 14 and 13 points in the first and final quarters, respectively, to defeat the Liberty 91-69. Tuesday's victory snapped a five-game losing streak and Minnesota improved to 7-6.

"The first five wins, we were outscoring people, but when we lost, we had trouble scoring," notes Lynx guard Navonda Moore. Minnesota is scoring almost 82 points a game, but allowing opponents almost 80 points. "I don't know how we got away from it but tonight we got back to that base of what we have been stressing since training camp -- defense, defense, defense."

As a result, the Lynx tied a season-low in points allowed -- Chicago only scored 69 against them in a May 29 game earlier this season.

Guard Seimone Augustus offered another reason: "We trusted each other on the defensive end. In our past games, (there) wasn't (any) help side (defense). We get penetrated on up the middle and nobody was there to help.

"Tonight, you would see three or four people in the lane, swarming the ball whenever a player get inside. We contested the shots tonight."

In addition to crediting the players for the win Tuesday, Lynx Coach Don Zierden also gave kudos to Assistant Coach Jennifer Gillom. "Jen did a great job challenging our post players to play better defense, and they responded to that," he points out.

This, along with perhaps locker room quotes attributed to New York's Janel McCarville. In a published story in Tuesday's StarTribune on McCarville's thoughts about the Lynx not selecting her when she was in the 2007 dispersal draft. "I don't know if I have anything else to prove as to how they should have taken me. They (Minnesota) just didn't have faith in me after two years," McCarville was quoted.

"The motivation for the post players was (from) the comment (McCarville) made in the papers," believes Augustus.

McCarville didn't do much Tuesday to helped prove that Minnesota was wrong: she shot 2-for-7, and finished with four points in 27 minutes. While on the other hand, Nicole Ohlde went 7-for-8 for 14 points; Kristen Rasmussen added 8, and Vanessa Hayden-Johnson chipped in six points.

"Our post players had a lot of energy," says Augustus, who led all scorers with 21 points and nine assists. "Thank you, Janel."

When asked what he said to his team before Tuesday's contest, Zierden disclosed, "My pregame talk was if it means that much to get this (losing) streak over with, then you will get it done."

Minnesota outscored New York 2-to-1 in the first quarter, but allowed the Liberty to twice try climb back into the contest with a couple of runs, which ironically took place when Augustus went to the bench.

Says Zierden,"I was upset at when we took (Augustus) out early, and (New York) went on a four-point run, then I took her out the last two minutes (before halftime) and they went on a 10-4 run."

"We cut it to eight twice," says Liberty Coach Pat Coyle. "We didn't execute the way we needed to execute. They (the Lynx) took us out of our stuff."

"My message at halftime," continues Coach Z, "when we take Seimone out of the game, we can't go down 6-8 points every time. You guys got to step it up."

Zierden was especially pleased with Rasmussen's play Tuesday -- she and Nicky Anosike tied with a team-high six rebounds in her 21 minutes of action.

"She (Rasmussen) is a coach's dream," notes Zierden. "She is that one player that you can count on for (either) four minutes or 20 minutes. She gives you energy, defense and rebounding."

Now that the five-game skid, can Minnesota resume its upward climb into WNBA respectability?

"Nobody thought we've be 7 and 6 right now," says Zierden, adding that his young Lynx aren't quite world beaters yet.

"They got it done today -- now we'll see what they will do on Thursday (against Sacramento, their next opponent," the coach concludes.

Lynx Lines --

Early rookie wall hitting? A sportswriter asked me during Tuesday's game what is wrong with rookie forward Charde Houston. She was scoreless in Saturday's 72-65 loss to Houston, and made only one of three shots against New York.

Zierden said afterwards that the first-year player is going through the normal ups-and-downs most rookies go through.

"I think when she knows our game plan, and follows it -- sometimes she gets out of it, and she reaches, makes a careless turnover or a careless foul," explains the coach. "When she does that, we want to bring her back in, sit her on the bench, and teach her what is going on."

Houston is not alone -- Nicky Anosike, and even Candice Wiggins, sometimes exhibit their down times as well, says Zierden. "Nicky is a little bit ahead of where Charde is, but as a rookie, you are going to go through 3, 4, 5-minute stretches when you are not playing well. You have to do something positive.

"She played well in Detroit," he says on Houston's 16-point effort last Friday, "and she had a couple of rough ones. Hopefully she will come out (better) Thursday night."

Minnesota also broke a six-game losing streak against New York with Tuesday's win -- the Lynx last defeated the Liberty 64-60 on July 15, 2005 at Madison Square Gardens. It was the home team's first win over New York since a two-point victory on July 17, 1999.

The bandwagon has left the building

It didn't take long but the Minnesota Lynx bandwagon might have left the building.

After the best start in franchise history, the Lynx (6-6) is now reeling coming into tonight's game against the New York Liberty.

The reason is simple: Minnesota's defense has been horrific, which is defying Head Coach Don Zierden's basic belief. "We're a roll-up-our-sleeves kind of club," he says.

However, his players in many areas aren't playing like this.

"We haven't been shooting the ball as well as we like," guard Anna DeForge points out. Defensive breakdowns have been too numerous, something that DeForge's coach totally agree.

Also, the Lynx's point guard play has been lacking: Noelle Quinn, particularly, has been up and down all season. She has to play better -- two assists and three turnovers in 19 minutes simply won't do.

But Minnesota also needs more from Lindsay Harding, who has struggled in the two games she has played in since returning from an injury.

"We definitely need our point guards to step up," Zierden notes.

Other than Candice Wiggins, who is getting to the line on a double-figure clip, the Lynx has struggled at the free throw line. "The past couple of games we haven't been hitting our free throws," says DeForge, who missed both her chances in Saturday's loss to Houston. Minnesota shot only 66 percent from the line in the seven-point defeat that put the team at .500 for the first time this season.

Finally, the whispers are starting to grow -- the Lynx's fast start was only a mirage.

"We can't listen to outside voices," concludes DeForge. "We have to stay focused on each other and this team, playing better every game and finding ways to win."


Can we move on? -- Another one of those "We should have taken Janel McCarville" stories was written today. A summer intern penned the latest one for the Star Tribune, again revisiting history.

The Lynx passed over McCarville, the former Gopher, in the league's dispersal draft two years ago in favor of Tangela Smith.

I said it then, and I say it now -- Minnesota made the right call. McCarville, who I covered in college, had not lived up at the time to her 2005 top overall selection, and Smith was a better pro. Furthermore, if the Lynx had taken her, they would not have gotten Lindsay Harding from Phoenix, which they did by dealing Smith in a one-on-one deal.

All Tuesday's non-story only does is again stir up the locals, who steadfastly believe that if Minnesota had both McCarville, Lindsay Whalen or any other former Gopher they like, that the team would be better off, especially in drawing folks. If the team did have these two, you would only see a slight bump in attendance, nothing more.

Winning, not former college stars, bring people to the seats. Everyone around the country knows this, but sadly this knowledge eludes too many Minnesotans.

My final say on this -- I would not have given up two proven starters (at the time were Katie Smith and Tamika Williams) and two No. 1's for an unproven rookie in Whalen, nor was Charlotte was going to give up their top spot and the opportunity to select McCarville to Minnesota, who had nothing to offer in that regard.

Minnesota is the only place that is so provincial in its thinking that local athletes make the difference. If that was the case, why did Los Angeles chose Candice Parker out of Tennessee, rather than a California product.

It's sad that this summer intern couldn't found another subject to write on.

Welcome aboard -- Tuesday's game will be LaToya Thomas' first in a Lynx uniform. The former top draft choice -- Thomas was the first overall pick by Cleveland in 2003, was acquired Sunday from Detroit in exchange for guard Eshaya Murphy.

Hopefully, the trade will be a plus for both teams: Thomas wasn't playing much in Detroit, and the same for Murphy, who was often placed on the inactive list and only played in two games this season.

Minnesota becomes the first WNBA team with three No. 1 overall draft selections on one roster, as Thomas joins previous top picks Seimone Augustus and Harding.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

An unclassy way of firing a classy guy

It took years for Willie Randolph to finally get his first big league managerial job. However, after winning his last game as New York Mets skipper Monday night, Randolph was fired in the middle of the night.

Mets GM Omar Minaya must have read Kevin McHale's book on bad firings. The Minnesota Timberwolves vice-president, instead of getting his behind on a plane and flying out to do his hatchet job, called then coach Dwane Casey in his hotel room on the road and fired him long distance a couple of years ago.

I don't know which is worst -- both chicken-hearted ways to dismiss someone is a wash, any way you look at. Both men were classy in their jobs, and both Casey and Randolph were let go while their teams were away from home.

I don't know if Casey got a first class plane ticket back home, but I certainly hope Randolph did.

Either way, it's the last hired, first fired routine.

Although it was not entirely a total shock -- Randolph have been hanging on a single thread for about a month now. Still his firing, or the classless way the Mets handled it, sent shockwaves around the baseball world Tuesday.

"He is a very classy and good baseball man," says Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire after his team's 2-1 win over visiting Washington in interleague play.

"As far as his job, I thought it might have been a short leash on him,"Twins first-base coach Jerry White told me. His facial expression quickly told me that he was a bit disturbed with the news of Randolph's firing., especially on how it all went down. He felt the Mets management could've treated their now former manager a little better than that.

"There's an obligation there," adds White. "The season still is young and it looks like (New York) is giving up."

New York is a tough place, and you got to win or else, notes Twins DH Craig Monroe. "They put a lot of money into one team, and when you aren't getting it done, you got to find a scapegoat."

Exit Randolph, the 2008 baseball season's first scapegoat.

"Sometimes you can't control the things that goes on (but) you know that he cared every day at that ball park, trying to figure out what he could do to help that ball club," says Gardenhire of Randolph.

Will Randolph get another chance at managing?

"He should (get another job)," says White. "It is who is willing to give him another shot."

"He deserves another opportunity," concurs Gardenhire. "He is a very classy and good baseball man. He's very well respected among all the managers. "

But given reality, and the last hired, first fired set of rules that usually is unfairly applied to Blacks, the question isn't will he, but rather when will he get another shot?

"Don't put me on the spot because I can talk a lot of crap about that," says White, the Twins' only Black on its coaching staff.

Adds Monroe, one of only two Black players on the Twins' 2008 roster, "You don't want to get me talking about that." Instead, he went another route and offered this brief bit of common sense: "I think the players got to take some cupability (for Randolph's firing). They got to go out and win games. I don't think it's the manager's fault -- it's a collective group of the team you put together."

It's a shame Minaya didn't see this as well. Let's hope that when the day comes, Minaya won't get the ax as coldly as he swung it on Randolph.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Back to Earth

Sacramento came in Thursday night on a second half of a back-to-back and knocked off Minnesota 82-78, a score that isn't indicative of how the hosts played.

The Lynx bust out to a 13-3 lead at the start of the game, but by the end of one quarter, Sacramento had a one-point lead, and eventually stretched it to a 15-point halftime advantage.

"We dug ourselves in a hole," says center Vanessa Hayden-Johnson.

Minnesota came to within 69-68 with six and a half minutes left to play but never came any closer. Three straight possessions later and the Lynx couldn't capitalize, and the visitors never let them get any closer.

"We probably were getting rubbery legs by then," recalls Minnesota Coach Don Zierden, who added that he didn't want to use one of his few remaining timeouts at this point.

Anna DeForge was fouled, attempting a three-pointer with eight seconds left, with a last chance to pull Minnesota to within one. DeForge hit her first two free throws but missed the third, and Sacramento correled the rebound. Ticha Penicheiro got fouled and swished her final two attempts from the line -- she earlier went one of two, and iced the game.

Perhaps for the first time this season, especially in front of the home crowd, the Lynx's youthful and inexperience was clearly evident.

"Things were easy the first few minutes, then (Sacramento) turned up the defensive pressure and the physical game," Minnesota Coach Don Zierden pointed out afterwards. "They know that Minnesota is not supposed to be ahead of them in the standings."

In this season's first weeks, it looked like things were easy for Minnesota, winning their first three home games, and six of their first seven contests.

Now the Lynx (6-3) is back to Earth, losers of their last two games.

"People already are saying, 'Oh, see, told you --they are not that good (because) they lost two in a row," notes Hayden-Johnson afterwards.

Coach Z was asked during his post-game comments by one beat reporter has Minnesota reached hoops reality.

"With this young team, this is a work in progress," he notes. "Just because they came out and got a couple of wins early, and people got excited. As a coaching staff, we understand our weaknesses and what we need to work on."

"It's nothing to hang our heads about," adds forward Charde Houston. "We have to come out from the start of the game with a lot of energy, and be the more aggressive team from start to finish."

"Luckily we got a lot of young girls who are upset about (losing)," says Hayden-Johnson.

More importantly, the Lynx must realized that the 2008 season is after all, only nine games old, with 25 games and over two months remaining. At times like these, this is where locker room leadership is crucial. I don't think it's coming from the veterans such as DeForge and Kristen Rasmussen, who have a combined 14 years experience between them.

Maybe the players should listen to Hayden-Johnson, who after missing a season due to the birth of her first child, has been around since 2004.

"This is the WNBA, an up-and-down league and season," Hayden-Johnson reminds us.

"We played hard in the second half, and we played hard to start the game, but you got to play hard for 40 minutes," says Zierden. "You learn from this."

Improving shooting (the Lynx have shot 33 and 44 percent the last two games), and better ball protection (21 turnovers against Sacramento) also are must's as Minnesota takes to the road for their next two contests, at New York, whom have beaten Minnesota five straight times since 2005, and at Detroit.

"All three of our losses have come down to the last three minutes of the basketball game, and that's when you have to be at your best," explains Coach Z.

Simply put, it's the little things that must be improved, he says. "Making free throws, defensive assignments -- we would keep cutting the lead down, then we lose somebody for a layup. We have to tighten those things up."

Both games, as was Sacramento (5-4) on Thursday, are early challenges to this year's Lynx.

"We got to go out there and kick butt," concludes Hayden-Johnson.


Candice Wiggins recorded her second DQ (fouled out) of the season Thursday. She leads the Lynx in this category. She finished with 17 points, and despite haven't started a game this season, the rookie guard is second on the team in scoring (16 points a game), and got to the free throw line over 10 times (9-for-11) for the third time this summer.

Nicky Anosike leads Minnesota in rebounds -- she pulled down 11 against the Monarchs, her second double-digit effort of the season.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

That look

Besides bouncing back from a loss, a good telling sign of a good team is how they look after that loss.

"If you can see the looks on these ladies' faces when you came into the locker room after the game," notes Minnesota Lynx guard Navonda Moore, "you look in their eyes and see that (we) don't want that to happen again."

In years past, after a defeat, most of the women didn't have that look. Oh, they did not like losing, but they weren't that brokenhearted over it either.

Not anymore.

It was the look after again losing again to Connecticut Tuesday night, 75-66, at home, the Lynx's second loss of the season -- both defeats at the hands of the Sun.

This time, it was Connecticut's Barbara Turner, who scored 16 of her 18 points in the second half, who helped produce that look in the hosts' faces, as the veteran guard-forward helped her Sun outscore the hosts 47-29, and overcame a nine-point halftime deficit.

"Barbara Turner got hot for them," explained Lynx Coach Don Zierden afterwards. "She picked them up and carry them."

Minnesota's evening-long cold shooting (25-for-75, 33 percent), including a 28-percent second half performance, also greatly contributed to that look as well.

"We couldn't throw it in the ocean," says Zierden.

Tuesday's defeat overshadowed perhaps Moore's best performance of the year: 7 points, 4 rebounds and a blocked shot.

"She was aggressive and got to the free throw line (5-of-7), and did some nice things for us," notes her coach. "That was an encouraging sign for us."

However, afterwards Moore couldn't accept this reporter's praise for her on-court work.

"I'm not thinking about that now," she admits. "I wanted that 'W' really bad. We all wanted that 'W' so bad. I am just thinking about focusing on tomorrow, and focusing on Sacramento (Minnesota's next opponent)."

She had that look, which lend credence to what Zierden has been saying since last season -- a change of culture is being created in Lynxland.

"It's hurt to have a decent game," continues Moore, "and you still look at that 'L.' What good feeling you can have out of that?"

Instead, the Lynx players left with that empty feeling, coming up short in their first home loss of the 2008 season.

Instead, they are kicking themselves because they didn't bring their usual energy, especially in the deciding second half.

"We didn't match their intensity in the second half," admits Lynx forward Nicole Ohlde.

Says Moore, "We had some spurts where we had a lot of energy, then we had three to five minutes where we were searching for it. That's not the way that we are."

Despite going up against a veteran, seasoned Connecticut squad, Moore refuses to blame their hit-and-miss energy on being young.

"We are a lot of second-year players and rookies," says Moore, "but when it comes down to it, it is really just playing basketball. This is the game we have been doing all of our lives.

"Intensity is something you can't teach," she adds.

Afterwards, reporters asked Zierden can the Lynx bounce back from Tuesday's defeat to play Sacramento on Thursday.

"They did a nice job responding after the first Connecticut loss (June 6)," he pointed out. "Now we'll see how we will come out Thursday night."

Bouncing back is something Moore and her teammates don't want to do too much more this season.

"Seimone (Augustus) told us that she is getting tired of hearing "bounce back," discloses the second-year guard. "We don't want to keep bouncing back."

Instead, the Lynx players had no choice but to leave the arena, to go into that good, good night Tuesday:

With that look.

Lynx Bits - - -

Augustus's 10 assists Tuesday was both a career and season high: she also kept alive her current double-figure scoring streak alive, now at 66 games, when the third-year guard hit a 22-footer trey with 29 seconds left in the game, to give her 11 points for the game . . .

Nicky Anosike went 2-for-11 against the Sun, her worst shooting game in her young rookie career. She perhaps is dwelling too much on her misses, Zierden believes. "She gets down on herself and is harder on herself as anybody," he says. His advice: "If you focus on what's happened in the past, it will affect your next shot."

Anytime Connecticut comes to town, which is only once a season, it brings people who usually don't want to be seen at any women's hoops game: the Twin Cities' "Mount Rockhead" -- columnists Patrick Reusse (Star Tribune), Tom Powers and Charley Walters (both of the St. Paul Pioneer Press) made their usual annual appearance Tuesday. All of them made a beehive to the Sun's locker room afterwards to again fawn over former U-M player Lindsay Whalen.

This reporter usually avoids such nonsense -- I covered Whalen all four years in college, meanwhile the Rockheads didn't know she existed until her junior year when the Gophers began winning, and broke the bandwagon in covering her.

Former Lynx Tamika (Williams) Raymond did not score in her five minutes of action, going 0-for-2, with one rebound, in her first trip back to Minnesota after being traded to the Sun this spring for Kristen Rasmussen. "We appreciate what she gave us last year in leadership," says Coach Z of Raymond, Minnesota's 2002 first round draft pick. "We had to make the trade, and she was very gracious about it."

"They could've traded me off to boo-boo land, but they put me in a situation (in Connecticut)where I can be successful," Raymond told me prior to Tuesday's game. "I loved every moment at Minnesota. The fans were great and very loyal, and the (Lynx) franchise was loyal to me. I just think it was time for me to move on."

No repeats here

Tuesday's nationally televised contest (ESPN2, 7:00 pm EDT) between the host Minnesota Lynx (6-1)and the visiting Connecticut Sun (7-1) is being billed locally as a clash between conference leaders -- the Sun is atop the East, and the surprising, youthful Lynx is in front in the West.

Also, the local papers as a rematch of the two teams that just played four days previously, a 78-77 Connecticut win.

However, for Minnesota Coach Don Zierden, he doesn't want to see a repeat of that last meeting.

It was the first time in this young season that Zierden was totally disappointed in his club's effort. "I thought they (the Sun) were quicker to the ball than we were," he recalls. "I thought we were slow in our (defensive) rotations. Offensively, I thought the stopped moving."

The Lynx finished with only 17 assists -- six from Seimone Augustus, who led her team with 22 points. "We can't have that with the makeup of our ball club," notes Zierden, who rather see his players get those set-up passes in the 20s.

Ashja Jones had a game-high 25 points for Connecticut, including the winning basket with 19 seconds left, which erased a five-point deficit in the last minute and a half.

Instead of seeing tonight's game as a clash of the so-called titans, "I'm worried about can we beat a team that beat us the other night, and beat us pretty handedly until we made a late run," says Coach Z.

No repeats here, thank you.

Lynx Bits --

Tuesday's night contest wraps up the season series between the two clubs: Connecticut holds a one-game edge (9-8) in the all-time series . . .

Minnesota leads the WNBA in shooting (46 percent), second in free throw attempts (around 25 a game) and third in free throw shooting (nearly 78 percent) . . .

The Lynx, however, is near the bottom in scoring defense (78.8 ppg, currently 12th in WNBA) -- last season, they were last in this category . . .

Monday, June 9, 2008

Coming of age moment

It was early Sunday evening in the fourth quarter -- "winning time," the pros call it, and the San Antonio Silver Stars had cut a deficit that reached as high as 13 points in the third quarter to just one on Becky Hammon's three-pointer.

But Minnesota, the WNBA's perennial youngest team, the 10th anniversity Lynx, immediately came back down and scored: rookie Charde Houston's driving lay-up from an Anna DeForge assist, to give her team a three-point cushion. Then Nicole Ohlde blocked a shot sparked a DeForge fast break layup from a feed by Seimone Augustus.

The home team now up by five points, and the visiting Silver Stars never got any closer.

That was a coming of age moment for Minnesota, who defeated San Antonio 90-78, to remain unbeaten at home this young season.

"Charles, you being an astute basketball guy -- you have been here through the process, when you got a lot of young players, there are two ways you could've done it," Lynx Head Coach Don Zierden disclosed afterwards. "You could've taken a time out and try to diagram a play, or you could've let them learn how to play basketball. I decided to let them learn how to play basketball."

Simply, this is called trust. This is called confidence. This is called a growing sign of maturity.

Minnesota is now 6-1. Each win brings about a little additional dose of confidence. Each time the players respond positively, as they did Sunday in that coming of age moment, returns the confidence and the trust the coach has in them.

"In previous years," explains Lynx center Vanessa Hayden-Johnson, a four-year veteran, "this team had lost and lost. Just like a fight, we get hit in the mouth and fall down. They (San Antonio) gave us their best shot, and we came back with it. I think now we have that."

"I think when we go through tough stretches," Coach Z continues, "sometimes the players need to figure it out. We have a bunch of young players, so now that is what we are going to do sometimes.

"We knew they (San Antonio) was in a zone, and we made the extra pass that time and got a layup, a good shot."

Minnesota's willingness to make those extra passes, to set up teammates for better shot opportunities, also is showing. The Lynx recorded 23 assists Sunday.

Unfortunately, stats aren't kept on 'extra passes' or 'passes that lead to passes that lead to assists.' "We need to get better, but we are making the extra pass," says Zierden. "You can hear the players on the bench, yelling it out. When one player finds success, it just breeds success on down the road. People want to make the extra pass."

Hayden-Johnson credits the youngsters for this. They arrived with the hungriness not seen in Lynxland for . . . frankly, I can't recall ever seeing it. They arrived not Mary Tyler Moore-type spunk, but with not-backing-down-from-anyone type spunk.

"We go at each other's throats at practice," she admits. "We are fighting. We are cussing each other out. But it is making us better."

That spunk carries over into games.

"Nicky Anosike, Charde (Houston) and the girls come in here so excited and they brought that," claims Hayden-Johnson. "That's addictive."

Zierden has been concerned about his team's play at late. They won a shootout last week at Atlanta, but struggled badly two days later at Connecticut, who handed the Lynx the only blemish on their season record.

"When you have such a young team," continues the coach, "you want to see where we are. I wanted to see how we would respond to a loss. When you have such a young team, you want to see where we are. I wanted to see how we would respond to a loss."

Coach Z liked what he saw. "I thought we came out and played hard. It was a good telling sign. Now we'll see what happens when we lose another game and come back and fight as hard as we did tonight."

A popular litmus test of a good team is how they bounced back from a crushing defeat. They did, but Coach Z won't take credit for this.

"It's about the players," he concludes. "It's always about the players."


Q-Tip: Second-year guard Noelle Quinn has been shooting 50 percent or better in her last four games, including a 4-for-6 performance, including hitting 3 of 4 three pointers Sunday. Quinn previously had gone 0-for4 from outside the arc. in her last five games. "Q was not playing as well as she thought she could in the first few games," says Zierden. "Instead of sulking about it, she got in the gym and worked extra hard. You see the dividends."

X-Files: A reporter Sunday asked Zierden about Charde Houston's X-factor role. "We have to have more than one X-factor for us to be successful," the coach quickly corrected the young man. "Charde has been great some games for us energy-wise. But Ras (forward Kristen Rasmussen) has stepped up some games. Vanessa had a great game against Phoenix (on May 31). There's a bunch of players who have been X-factors. You need that with a young ball club we have." Houston had 15 points (6-for-9 from the field) in 23 minutes in Sunday's win -- she's ranks 10th in the league in shooting (51 percent).

Still sitting: Shay Murphy spent her fifth game on the inactive list. She played a minute and a half against Atlanta June 3, misfiring on her only shot attempt but grabbed a rebound. It should be noted that the second-year player is not in any trouble -- she's using this time to improve her game under the coaches' tutelage.

Learning in progress: Top pick Candice Wiggins led Minnesota with 17 points. She only made two of eight shots from the field, but converted 13-of-14 from the line. "Candice is a very smart basketball player," notes her coach. "She's learning at this level that good teams like San Antonio will take away certain things. They were not going to let her shoot the three (Wiggins missed all four of her attempts). So she was able to turn the corner and get to the rim. She's learning how to play the game as the game is going on."

Proud parents: Charles and Alice Taylor came in from their home in Idaho to spend this week, visiting their daughter Angela Taylor, the Lynx business development vice-president. They watched and cheered their daughter's team to victory Sunday.

Congrats: Don and Anne Zierden celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversity Sunday.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Unfamiliar territory

Not in any time of its 10-year history the Minnesota Lynx have been in this position:

First place.

The team that finished tied last season with the league's worst record. The same team that only won a combined 20 games over the course of two summers, is the same team that is currently the WNBA's only unbeaten squad in less than a month of play.

"We are just here to win," says Lynx center Nicky Anosike.

One can excuse Anosike for her not dwelling on the past --- she wasn't around the last few years because she was winning consecutive championships at Tennessee.

The same for Candice Wiggins, who have spent the last four years compiling points on her way to becoming the Pac-10 and Stanford's all-time leading scorer. Ditto for Charde Houston, who spent her collegiate years at Connecticut.

Nonetheless, all three first-year players have played a huge role in the Lynx's early-season success: Anosike as a starter, and Wiggins and Houston providing strong bench support.

"It's fun to watch these players compete," Minnesota Coach Don Zierden marvels. "We knew (prior to drafting the three) that they were going to be high energy players. They have done everything we've asked of them, and exceeded expectations."

More importantly, Zierden is getting production from almost every Lynx player on this year's roster. "Every night a different player stepped up," he points out. "We are getting production from everybody in different ways."

Because of this, two-time All-Star Seimone Augustus' role has changed. She still is the team's marquee player, but she is no longer have to be its savior as well.

"I'm feeling great about the Lynx and what we are doing here," says Augustus. "I just hope that it continues throughout the season."

Zierden believes that it can: "Everybody has accepted their roles," he notes. "That's big right now."

And since the rookies have no knowledge of the past, they are putting it on.

"We know our roles," admits Anosike.

"I'm still learning," continues Wiggins, an early Rookie of the Year candidate, who has played some solid point guard since her arrival. The 5-11 rookie, who mostly played forward at Stanford, led all players with 12 assists in Minnesota's win over visiting Phoenix on the last day of May.

"I don't think people see me as a point guard," says Wiggins, "but I played a lot of point guard in college. I can do a lot better."

Houston, who was originally pegged as a defensive addition, has posted two double-double games thus far. "I have the ability to score," she remarked of her 18 point-13-rebound performance vs. Phoenix -- all in a reserve role.

While I am not calling for early downtown parade tickets, I do like Minnesota's start, and believe it eventually will lead the Lynx to its first playoff berth since 2004.

FURTHERMORE -- The U.S. Olympic women's basketball team is three-fourths set. Nine players, including Augustus and Phoenix's Cappie Pondexter, were selected May 31. The others include: Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Thompson, Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker. The roster mixes internationally experienced youth and veteran leadership.

"I love the combination of players that we have," says U.S. Olympic head coach Anne Donovan. "We've really covered the gamut in terms of experience and we have a tremendous balance of perimeter and post play."

USA Basketball Vice-President Renee Brown, who also chaired the selection committee, adds, "We know it will not be an easy road to the gold medal in Beijing -- the rest of the world has gotten much better over the last four years. However, we feel that this group will continue to represent their country with pride and honor and compete at the highest level that is expected when representing USA Basketball."

For Augustus, Fowles, Parker and Pondexter, this will be their first Olympic Games.

"It is definitely one of my goals I had growing up (was) to be part of the Olympic team," admits Pondexter, who plays for Phoenix in the WNBA. "I'm excited and looking forward to it."

"I wanted to win a national championship in college, but I think the Olympics is (at) the top of the women's game," believes Augustus. "It is going to be a very competitive field, but hopefully we can pull out with the gold."

Three more players are expected to be added to the USA squad by July 1.