Shorthanded Shock’s valiant effort not enough in Houston

Half Shy of Happy

Few things have gone right for the Detroit Shock this week, but the first half of Thursday’s game at Houston was certainly one of them.

The Shock opened a 10-point lead and still led at halftime, 35-28. They outrebounded the Comets and forced 12 turnovers. Detroit’s zone defense pushed Houston’s shooters beyond the arc, holding the Comets to 30.5 percent shooting.

But the Comets had reserves where the Shock had a lot of empty chairs, and those extra bodies sent Detroit to its third consecutive loss, 79-61. Roneeka Hodges (18 points), Sancho Lyttle (16) and Matee Ajavon (12) combined for 46 points off the Houston bench.

“They had a lot of people that knocked down shots,” said Katie Smith, who scored 12 points for Detroit. “Obviously, we didn’t have enough people to get the job done, but we played hard.”

Shock guard Deanna Nolan had 23 points, nine rebounds, four assists and four steals in 38 minutes. Despite her box score-stuffing effort, Nolan could not win the game by herself. But you cannot blame her for trying.

The Shock dressed the league-minimum eight players and were missing virtually their entire frontcourt, Cheryl Ford due to a season-ending injury and Plenette Pierson, Tasha Humphrey and Kara Braxton due to suspension, which is just a fraction of the penalty the team must serve following Tuesday’s dust-up with the Los Angeles Sparks at The Palace.

The Shock did have their two leading scorers, Smith and Nolan. But the quartet of Braxton, Ford, Humphrey and Pierson accounts for 37.5 points and 21.6 rebounds per game. Scrambling to compensate, head coach Bill Laimbeer had to get creative with his lineup and his strategy just to get through the 40 minutes. And for most of the first half, his game plan worked beautifully, even if, as he said after the game, that plan was to “play hard.”

“We had a little bit of a game plan, obviously to protect ourselves; obviously we’re not very deep,” he said. “To come out and play hard. We battled the first half, but usually a zone won’t make it the whole game.”

To combat Houston’s height advantage, Laimbeer employed a constant zone defense. To keep his players from wearing out, he implored his team to run a more deliberate pace offensively, especially after they built a 17-7 lead in the first quarter. Sheri Sam contributed three baskets to that strong start, part of her eight-point, nine-rebound performance.

With no other post players available, rookie center Olayinka Sanni had a chance to show what she could do in extended minutes. Once a starter, Sanni has been out of the rotation for several weeks. In her return to the lineup she delivered 16 points, five rebounds and five steals in 33 minutes.

Sanni, who made eight of 13 field goals, shined in the first half with eight points and five steals, both surpassing her prior career highs. She scored the first four points of an 8-0 run late in the second quarter to help secure Detroit’s halftime lead.

The Comets keyed in on Sanni and Nolan after halftime, and charged ahead during a 17-0 run. Houston outscored Detroit, 30-9, in the third quarter.

Not surprisingly, the Comets also had a sizable advantage in bench points, 50-2. The Shock’s three-player bench consisted of veteran forward Stacey Lovelace, who joined the team two weeks ago; rookie guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who scored the lone field goal, and 50-year-old Nancy Lieberman.

Lieberman, a former Shock head coach and GM, signed a seven-day contract with the understanding she would only play Thursday. Lieberman already once held the distinction of the WNBA’s oldest player when she was a 39-year-old member of the Phoenix Mercury during the WNBA’s inaugural 1997 season. The Hall of Famer entered the game with 1:01 left in the first quarter and played nine minutes, recording two assists with two turnovers.

“I think that people underestimate the mind of Bill Laimbeer,” said Comets forward and 2008 U.S. Olympian Tina Thompson. “ He was a very smart player and I think that signing Nancy Lieberman was a smart move. It was a bright spot because it brought some positivity back to the game. The focus was changed a lot. It changed to focusing on Nancy being here and her being a little more mature than we are and being able to come out and play and compete at a very high level which the WNBA is. I commend Bill for changing the focus of the game from something so negative (after Tuesday's game) to bringing Nancy in and bringing something positive.”

It is expected that Lieberman will not be in uniform for Sunday’s game against San Antonio and that Laimbeer will sign another player to help solidify his frontcourt before then. Both Braxton and Humphrey will be back, having served their one-game suspensions. Sam will serve her one-game sentence Sunday.

The three-game skid is the longest of the season for the Shock (16-10), who still lead the Eastern Conference. Sunday’s showdown with the Silver Stars is Detroit’s last game before the month-long Olympic break.

AfterShocks: Assistant coach Rick Mahorn began serving his two-game suspension in Houston and did not attend the game. Sam wrote “Free Rick!” on her shoes.