Nowhere to go but up for struggling Lynx

Fourth-year franchise has yet to make the playoffs

By Jon Krawczynski

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Lynx began the season hoping to make their first trip to the playoffs in the franchise's four-year history.

They ended it with a different head coach, three consecutive losses and a franchise-worst 10-22 record.


But strong late-season performances -- including wins over Seattle and New York and close losses to Los Angeles and Houston -- have head coach Heidi VanDerveer confident her young team is improving.

"I think we're a good young team and our record does not indicate how good we are," VanDerveer said. "We've got a good core of young players and I think they need to mature on the court and learn how to play well as a team. This year has been tough, but I know we can use it as an experience to prepare us for the coming year."

VanDerveer took over for Brian Agler, who coached the team from its inception in 1999, immediately after the All Star break. At the time, the Lynx had lost five in a row, and it was clear that Agler would not enjoy the same success as a WNBA coach as he did while coaching the Columbus Quest to back-to-back championships in the now defunct American Basketball League.

The coaching change didn't pan out in the standings. The Lynx were 6-13 under Agler and 4-9 under VanDerveer, finishing last in the Western Conference.

Youth was a big reason the team struggled. Aside from veteran Katie Smith, the Lynx relied heavily on youngsters Svetlana Abrosimova, Tamara Moore and 2002 first-round draft pick Tamika Williams.

Abrosimova missed considerable time with back problems and Moore struggled to get comfortable after coming to Minnesota from Miami in a midseason trade for Betty Lennox.

The young team showed promise in several games (like back-to-back wins over playoff contenders Seattle and New York), but also had mental lapses that cost them.

"We have a lot of young players who have been in situations this year they have not seen before," VanDerveer said. "Most of them came from winning college programs and aren't used to being behind at the end of a game. We are trying to see what players like Tamara and Tamika will do in big situations at the end of games."


What they did was commit turnovers and miss free throws, two signs of a lack of mental toughness.

"This is a tough league, especially for the younger players," Williams said. "The seasons are very short and the competition is obviously a lot tougher."

VanDerveer can only hope the team will learn quickly and that she'll be around to see it. She was named Agler's successor in July, but chief operating officer Roger Griffith said the team will decide on a permanent head coach -- either VanDerveer or someone else -- in the offseason.

Whoever the coach is, he or she will have one of the most dependable players in the league to build around in Smith, an All Star last season. Smith became the leading scorer in professional women's basketball history -- WNBA and ABL combined -- July 1 against the Detroit Shock. She also led the league in minutes per game (36.7), though her scoring average dipped to 16.5 points per game from a WNBA single-season record 23.1 in 2001.

"We've got a good team leader in Katie Smith and I know she can help the younger players find what it takes to win on a consistent basis," VanDerveer said. "But we have to get out of that habit of relying on her to get all the key baskets."

Smith expressed frustration earlier in the season at the team's lack of discipline and maturity. But strong performances against perennial championship favorites Los Angeles and Houston late in the season have her thinking things are headed in the right direction. If, that is, the players bring the right kind of attitude.

"Hopefully we've learned what it takes to win by playing these late games and competing with Houston and Los Angeles," Smith said.

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