4-0! (Lynx Pound Phoenix)
Before the 2008 WNBA season started, one might have guessed which team - the defending champion Phoenix Mercury or a Lynx team that tied for the fewest wins in 2007 - was undefeated and which had yet to win.
Contrary to popular opinion, it was Phoenix who was 0-3, and the Lynx who'd started 3-0 ... But that certainly didn't guarantee a win when the team's met in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Meanwhile, an hour-and-a-half before tipoff, Lynx star Seimone Augustus and Phoenix studs Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter met in the underground to be interviewed for their respective selections to team USA's Olympic team this summer. Taurasi, while slapping hands and hugging Augustus, asked 'Mone if the Lynx wouldn't mind giving Phoenix a much-needed victory.
Sorry Phoenix ... not this time.
Behind a solidly-balanced offense and the consistent defensive energy that's become a hallmark of head coach Don Zierden's team, Minnesota beat Phoenix 94-83 to extend to a franchise-record 4-0 mark at season's start.
"This was our third game in five days in three different cities," said Zierden. "I was very worried about our energy, but when you walk into an arena like that and the fans get excited about these young athletes, it just picked up their energy level."
The home team's bench outscored that of Phoenix a startling 45-4, and the Lynx went to the free throw line 40 times (making 33) and had four players in double-figures.
And hey Minnesota ... how about those rookies! Both Candice Wiggins and Charde Houston put up impressive double-doubles, while Nicky Anosike was huge in the fourth quarter to lead the Lynx to a 94-83 victory over last season's best WNBA team.
Wiggins scored 17 points, dished 12 assists and grabbed three boards, Houston scored 18 with a game-high 13 boards, and Anosike finished with nine points (seven in the fourth) and six boards despite limited minutes due to foul trouble.
The Lynx started the game shooting poorly in the first (32 percent), but took a 22-19 lead thanks to their traditional energy, and courtesy of 11 points from the bench. Anna DeForge had back-to-back threes to start the game, while helping to hold Taurasi to 1-of-6 shooting in the period.
Minnesota expanded its lead to eight in the second quarter in part by dominating the glass 13-7. Augustus scored seven points in the period, Wiggins dished five assists and Houston grabbed six rebounds.
The Mercury made their run in the middle of the third quarter, with a combination of Taurasi, Pondexter and Tangela Smith scoring 14 points to cut Minnesota's lead to just one at 57-56. The Lynx had led by as many as 12 in the quarter, but went cold from the field and gave up some easy buckets in transition.
The play of the fourth quarter was courtesy of Minnesota's rookies: Anosike pulled down a rebound and outleted to Wiggins, who picked out a streaking Houston who finished at the rim without putting the ball on the floor. That play put Minnesota up 76-69 after Phoenix had climbed to within a point, and took the momentum away from the defending champs.
Speaking of Minnesota's three outstanding rookies ... We kept an eye on them throughout the game to take a closer look at the how ridiculous their collective early success has been.
Forward/Center Nicky Anosike
Games 1-3: Proving she might have gone in the top five instead of at No. 16, Anosike averaged 11 points, 4.3 boards, 1.7 assists and 2.0 blocks (fourth in the WNBA) in her first three.
First Quarter: After grabbing two defensive rebounds early, Anosike got on the offensive glass at the 3:44 mark, drew a foul and converted both free throws. The two-time college national champ checked out after committing her second foul at the 1:35 mark of the first.
Second: Anosike didn't play in the second in part due to her two personal fouls, but Vanessa Hayden-Johnson was solid in the backup role, scoring eight points of the bench in the half.
Third: Anosike picked up two fouls in the first minute (the second should have gone to Noelle Quinn) to give her four on the game. Oops.
Fourth: All three rookies were in to start the fourth quarter (read that sentence again), and Anosike was absolutely fantastic in the final period after barely playing due to that foul trouble. First, she hit a baseline jumper to make it 72-67 Lynx, and after a Phoenix bucket drew a foul before hitting both free throws. She's now 17-of-20 (85 percent) from the line on the season. Her fifth rebound on the next possession led to a quick outlet to Wiggins, who then found Houston streaking down the floor for a layup, leading to a Target Center eruption and a 76-69 lead. She then scored again in the paint to give her six fourth-quarter points.
Forward Charde Houston
Games 1-3: Houston quickly proved what a huge steal she was in the third round by scoring 21 points in the season opener against Detroit before going for 15 at Chicago (sure, she didn't score at Houston, but she played just seven minutes). Houston ranks fourth in the WNBA in field goal percentage (58.3) and second among rookies in scoring (12.0) after Candace Parker.
First Quarter: Checking in alongside Wiggins, Houston scored Minnesota's next hoop after an early Wiggins three, and subsequently cleared the defensive glass. What a luxury for Zierden to bring two athletes like Wiggins and Houston off the pine, and eliminate any chance that the team loses its energy.
Second: Houston pulled up for a J in the lane for her fourth point, and grabbed four rebounds (six total) in the quarter's first two minutes. She checked out at the 6:18 mark with four points and six boards. Her swat against Pondexter at the 2:46 mark was key in preserving Minnesota's 40-32 lead, as the Mercury had scored four quick points. She then grabbed her seventh board, and scored on a beautiful up-and-under move at the rim to make it 44-32 Lynx.
Third: Houston checked in at the 6:20 mark of the third, almost immediately drawing a foul in the paint after a steal, and made 1-of-2 free throws. She turned it over on the next possession (travel), and heard from Augustus that she'll need to look around the perimeter for open teammates instead of just going at it alone. Houston nodded at her in agreement. At the 2:20 mark, she caught a nice pass from Wiggins and finished at the rim for her 10th point, before making a "rookie mistake" by riding a Mercury player too closely and putting her at the line in the bonus.
Fourth: Right after grabbing her 12th rebound, Houston again put a slick move on a hapless Phoenix defender in the paint for her 11th point. That's a double-double. Minnesota went to her again on the next possession, resulting in two free throws and a 70-67 lead. Her 13th rebound was a nice one, and came via ripping the rock away from Kelly Miller. She finished off a beautiful no-pass fast break on Wiggins's 10th assist, tying Augustus with a game-high 15 points.
Guard Candice Wiggins
Games 1-3: Her terrific defense is witnessed in part by her 2.0 steals per game (fifth in the league), but her on-the-ball pressure has been top shelf. She's added 11.7 points, 2.3 boards and 3.0 assists off the bench and her constantly positive attitude has surely rubbed off on teammates during Minnesota's 3-0 start.
First Quarter: Checking in near the four-minute mark of the first quarter, Wiggins immediately made an impact, nailing a three to put Minnesota up 12-8. Her two free throws at the one-minute mark put Minnesota up 20-17, and she added a rebound and an assist in the period.
Second: Wiggins added five more assists in the period to give her seven for the game (to go with two boards and five points) and was extremely active defensively from baseline to baseline.
Third: She came in just a few moments after Houston, and notched a beautiful assist on a screen and roll with Hayden-Johnson. After Phoenix made a big run, Wiggins temporarily stopped the bleeding by drawing a foul when driving towards the rim. She converted both free throws to put Minnesota up 59-56 near the 3:30 mark. She then hit 3-of-4 free throws to put the Lynx up six, while doing her best on the tough-to-guard Pondexter. Her 10th assist (and double-double) came on a terrific full-court pass to Houston that put the Lynx up seven with six minutes left. Wiggins continued a great final quarter by getting back to the foul line, from where she hit the 15-point mark.
Fourth: Wiggins was playing too well, running the point too effectively to come out of the game in the final period. She continued to harass on defense, and added seven points and three assists to her previous totals.
Minnesota shoots for 5-0 on Tuesday at Atlanta.