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.
LYNX LINES --
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.