Mercury’s Willingham Makes Jump to Starter

By Matt Paulson
East Valley Tribune
June 11, 2008

Mercury forward Le’coe Willingham has a history of rising to the occasion.

As a high school junior in Augusta, Ga., Willingham outleaped every other girl at the state track and field meet to take home the 4A high jump title.

In her junior season at Auburn University, Willingham sank the winning basket in the closing seconds of a thrilling 64-63 victory over Baylor in the WNIT final.

Now she is taking her game to new heights in her first year in Phoenix. Mostly a reserve during her first four seasons in the league, the 27-year-old’s statistics have ballooned after earning a starting job.

Her minutes (8.1 career average, 25.3 this season), points (2.2, 6.5) and rebounds (2.0, 6.7) have all tripled, and those numbers have steadily improved every game. After averaging just 2.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in the first two games of the season, Willingham has finished with at least six points and six rebounds every game since.

On Friday at Los Angeles, she recorded her first double-double, 12 points, matching her career high, and 12 rebounds, a personal best.

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“Every game I’m getting more comfortable being in the starting position and being in that role,” said Willingham, who signed a two-year free-agent contract in March after spending her previous years in the league with the Connecticut Sun.

Willingham has taken over the starting spot vacated by All-Star Penny Taylor, who is in Australia training for the Olympics. While she hasn’t made up for the loss of Taylor, Willingham is giving the Mercury the two things for which they acquired her: rebounds and energy.

Willingham’s rebound average is higher than Taylor’s from last season (6.3). She is second on the team in that category and 13th in the league.

Willingham is also first in the WNBA in offensive rebounds (3.7) among players who have played in at least four games.

Willingham credits good fundamentals for those numbers.

“I have a height disadvantage,” the 6-foot, 200-pound Willingham said, “so I have to do other things to compensate for what I lack in height. … I’m pretty strong. I just find mismatches, position myself well and put my butt on someone.”

While she is described by her coaches and teammates as a “banger” and “bruiser,” Willingham has had no trouble keeping up with the Mercury’s breakneck pace.

“I have sprinting in my background, and it’s still with me,” said Willingham, who also anchored Hephzibah High’s 400-meter relay team which placed third at state her junior year. “I love to run. It’s one of my favorite things.”

That’s a big reason why she won the only open starting job coming into camp.

“She’s by far our fastest big,” coach Corey Gaines said. “She’s earned (her spot). She’s putting up numbers, and she’s playing hard.”

COPYRIGHT 2008, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.