Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sota has pop

There's a lot of news and observations coming out of Mohegan Sun Arena today, with both the Sun and Minnesota Lynx practicing.

Here's a few notes:

(1) For the second time in three weeks, the Sun "enjoyed" an extended break between games to work on things. This week, Sun coach Mike Thibault emphasized three things: Rebounding (Chicago won the battle on the boards Sunday in the Sun's 75-73 win), offensive tempo (a constant focus for the team so far this season) and playing more aggressive defense (the Sun rank last in the league in steals per game with six).

"I know (assistant) Bernadette (Mattox) came over to me a couple times and said I need to be a little more active on the ball and get my hands into a couple more balls," Lindsay Whalen said. "Maybe that goes for everyone on the perimeter, but try to get more steals, be more active on defensive end.

"Just kind of working on ourselves," she added. "I think that’s the tone we set on Tuesday."

Said Tamika Raymond: "I think this week was good for us. I’m kind of happy we didn’t have games because we just needed to clean up things, as Coach would say."

That extra practice time disappears, though, starting this weekend when they host Washington on Sunday and depart for their West coast road trip, starting with Minnesota (again) on Tuesday. It's the start of five games in 11 days. Thibault and the players like it that way, though.

"We’ll have a string of games where we’ll get into a better rhythm now," Thibault said.

(2) At 5-0, the Lynx are the league's last undefeated team. After going 10-24 the last two seasons, they brought in Anna DeForge through free agency, returned reserve Vanessa Hayden (pregnancy) and had perhaps the best draft of any WNBA team, taking Candice Wiggins and Nicky Anosike within the first 14 picks and drafting Charde Houston in the third round. They, of course, also still have Seimone Augustus, a U.S. Olympic team member and probably the least-talked about superstar in the WNBA.

As far as the rookies, Wiggins is averaging 14.8 points per game and, like the Sun's Barbara Turner, is looking like the Sixth Man of the Year; Anosike has started every game at center and is averaging 12.4 points and leads the team in rebounding; and Charde Houston has scored 15 or more points three times.

Houston requested 70 tickets for tonight's game, and seemed genuinely excited to be back in Connecticut. She was just as pumped for a visit Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme.

"It’s been hard because I put a lot of pressure on myself every day in practice," Houston said of her first few weeks as a pro. "I get upset when somebody scores on me. I get upset when I don’t score. So I think I’ve been so productive because the coaching staff has put so much pressure on me to succeed. Good pressure, nothing negative. They just expect so much for me, and they do everything in such a positive way. If something goes wrong, they’re in my ear, but they make sure it’s also encouraging. They don’t bring me down or anything. It’s just a good atmosphere to be in."

When asked if she had spoken to UConn coach Geno Auriemma, with whom she had a hot-and-cold relationship throughout ther four years in Storrs, Houston said she hadn't, nor does she do so regularly.

"But I think (me not talking to Auriemma), that’s totally irrelevant whether I talk to him," she said. "That’s not something that should be made a big deal out of. Things happen."

When told the question was only asked because a lot of players usually do talk to their former coaches -- Jolene Anderson, for example, talks to her Wisconsin coach several times a week -- Houston said, "Yeah, OK. Well, no I don’t."

That said, she couldn't be happier where she is now.

"Everything comes with a blessing and everything happens for a reason," she said.

As for all the rookies, coach Don Zierden said he expected contributions from the trio of newcomers, but not quite like he's got.

"We had two ways we could go about this: Bring in some free agents or some older players and blow it up, but we decided that we were going to try to start young," he said. "So we knew that they were going to have to contribute because we’re a bunch of young players right now. But we didn’t know that Charde would have a game of 21 and Candice would have a game of 22 or Nicky would have a 12- or 13-rebound game."

Asked how he keeps them from getting too high on their performances, Zierden smiled.

"I think when we showed them film on Connecticut, they got the idea right away," he said. "OK, we’re 5-0, but after taking a look at how good Connecticut is, I think it kind of snapped them back in reality today pre-practice.

"The Lynx used to not be a serious competitor for anything," Zierden later added. "But now we’re trying to get some respectability out of this team and we think we’re trying to get there."

(3) As for Augustus, she's still scoring (19.8 points per game), but she doesn't have nearly the amount of pressure to get points like she did the last two years. I touch on this more in the Scout Box below, but she's also becoming a leader for the Lynx. Zierden explains further.

"When we traded Tamika (Raymond to the Sun), we traded a leader of this team. And the players were nervous about it. The reason that we weren’t worried about it is because we knew eventually, it had to become Seimone’s team. And until you move Tamika, that was maybe going to inhibit her from expanding her leadership skills. So when we traded Tamika, we called her right away and told her, ‘This is your team now.’ It was going to be that way anyway whether Tamika left in a year or two. But we wanted it to be now and she’s really embraced that role."

Zierden went on to describe the guard/forward as a quiet leader who does her work in small settings. For example, Zierden said, a player was struggling during practice on Thursday and at the next water break, it was Augustus who was talking to her.

"That’s leadership," he said.

(4) A quick note on DeForge: She's averaging 10.0 points per game this season, but Sun fans will probably remember when she scorched Connecticut during last year's playoffs. She scored 31, 26 and 18, respectively, in the three-game playoff series.

"Anna DeForge has had some great games in this building," Whalen said.

For more, here's the Scout Box for tomorrow's game:

7 p.m.
Mohegan Sun Arena, Mohegan

Records: Connecticut 5-1; Minnesota 5-0.
Last game: Connecticut beat the Chicago Sky, 75-73, on Sunday; Minnesota beat the Atlanta Dream, 85-81, on Tuesday.
Next game: Connecticut hosts Washington Sunday; Minnesota hosts San Antonio Sunday.
Series: The all-time series is tied between the two teams, 8-8, though the Sun own a 5-3 record at home against the Lynx. The teams split their two meetings last year, each winning on their home floor.
Injuries: Connecticut—Kamesha Hairston (recovering from lateral meniscus surgery, day-to-day). Minnesota—Lindsey Harding (stress fracture in left patella, out).
Scouting report: The Sun (2-0) and the Lynx (3-0) are the only teams in the NBA who haven’t lost on the road this season. ... Lindsay Whalen needs one more assist to tie Nykesha Sales (683) for second-all time among Connecticut’s career leaders. Bothered by a sore right Achilles’ tendon last weekend, Whalen said it’s improving. “It’s obviously not a horrible injury,” she said, jokingly adding, “I just can’t be going on four- or five-mile hikes on my day off.” ... The Sun already have made 49 3s this year (an average of 8.17 per game) , and lead the league in 3-point attempts per game (23.3). As a team, they’ve never averaged more than 5.7 made 3s or 16.8 attempts in a full season. Between Candice Wiggins, Seimone Augustus and free agent acquisition Anna DeForge, the Lynx have three perimeter players capable of stretching a defense. ... Though she has returned to practice, Sun coach Mike Thibault said Kamesha Hairston will not play tonight. ... With four other players scoring in double figures, Augustus has more help than she’s ever had. “We had two games already where she was our leading scorer and we won those games,” Lynx coach Don Zierden said. “That wouldn’t have happened last year. The Sun’s 4-1 mark in May was the best in franchise history.” ... The five games were also the most they’ve played in the opening month of the season.

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