Burst to First
"It's a blast. Kids and their energy are great. They yell at anything. They were into it," said guard Katie Smith, who addressed the students. "They've got tickets for the game tomorrow night and I hope they all come. It'd be a lot of noise in our favor."
The Shock made plenty of noise with Tuesday's 89-78 victory over Phoenix. One year to the week that the Mercury left The Palace as the first WNBA champion to clinch the title on the road, they departed Tuesday as the first defending champion not to qualify for the postseason.
Any poetic justice was overshadowed by the tangible impact on Detroit's pursuit of first place in the East. Connecticut lost at Houston Tuesday night, giving the Shock and Sun identical 20-12 records. The Shock, winners of two of the three head-to-head meetings, have the tiebreaker for the top playoff seed. With two games remaining, head coach Bill Laimbeer said the job's not done yet.
"No, no. We want to win out. There's no question about that. We want to win our home games," Laimbeer said. "We've got a good thing going right now, we want to continue it."
The Shock have won four of their five games since the Olympic break while the Sun have lost twice after a league-best seven-game winning streak dating back to July 20.
"First and foremost we have to win our games. But we were happy to see that [the Sun lost]," Smith said. "Maybe San Antonio will help us out, too. If we take care of our business and win out, then we control our own destiny."
While the Sun must play at league-leading San Antonio (22-10), which won at Connecticut Sunday, the Shock will host 10-21 Washington Thursday night. Despite their record, the Mystics have proven to be a tougher out since interim head coach Jessie Kenlaw replaced Tree Rollins after the Shock's 37-point blowout of Washington July 18.
"You always get a bump when your coach gets fired," said Laimbeer, who started with the Shock as the interim head coach in 2002, leading Detroit to a 9-13 finishing after an 0-10 start. "Then the onus is on the players, so you're going to see them pick their game up and play harder and play more focused."
In a return engagement Sept. 6 the Mystics led Detroit early in the fourth quarter before the Shock closed the door with an 84-69 win. Former Mystic Taj McWilliams-Franklin led the Shock with 21 points and nine rebounds.
"I think that they're playing a lot harder. When we were down in Washington, they battled," said Smith, who had 13 points and eight assists in that game. "Some of the sets are a little different but most of all they just seemed to be locked in a little bit. The defense is tough; they always rebound the ball well."
Laimbeer emphasized winning this home contest to avoid putting any additional pressure winning the season finale at New York against the playoff-bound Liberty.
"Yeah, that's the point," he said. "We want to play every game we play right now to prepare for the playoffs. And looking for home-court advantage, not only for the East but for the West. There are a couple teams we want to keep behind us."