Minnesota Lynx Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve delivered a simple message to her team before they played on the second night of a back-to-back in a different time zone.
“Our departure was 5 am from Mayo Clinic Square. We talked about this. 7 am flight, delays on the way home, you land, your gate’s not ready, all these delays,” Reeve said postgame. “We just shared with them that really nobody cares. There’s not an asterisk next to this game, that if you don’t win it, there’s an asterisk that somehow doesn’t feel as bad.”
Although there may not be an asterisk next to this game, if Minnesota (who is currently 1.0 game back of the No. 8 seed) gets into the playoffs we may look back in awe of how impressive last night’s Lynx’s 87-77 win over the Indiana Fever truly was.
There’s no test of mental toughness in the WNBA quite like a back-to-back that requires commercial travel on the day of a game. Every player’s game day routine is thrown off, from napping and meal schedules to treatment times and everything in between.
But in the face of all that, the two Lynx with the most reason to be tired, hurt, and not themselves showed up and lifted their squad over the hump in a must-win game.
Fighting through a cartilage injury in her right knee, plantar fasciitis, and the fatigue of playing 36 minutes in a double overtime win 72 hours prior, in addition to the 27 minutes less than 24 hours before Friday night’s tip, the Hall-of-Famer-to-be Sylvia Fowles just keeps plowing through whatever obstacles are in the way.
The 36-year-old superstar set a physical tone early. The eight-time All-Star drew two quick fouls on Fever rookie center Queen Egbo — which forced Egbo to the bench —, blocked a shot and grabbed three rebounds, all while her running mate Kayla McBride provided the scoring with a nine-point first quarter.
It was good to see McBride dominate offensively again after shooting 4/18 from 3 (22.2%) over her previous six games.
“She’s just tough, she’s tough minded. ... I just thought that K-Mac had to fight through some really frustrating moments with our team. I think maybe three weeks ago, maybe would not have been able to overcome that. It would have affected her adversely,” Reeve said of McBride postgame. “So I think just her becoming a stronger leader and rising above. Don’t let things pull you down. And I thought she was a really good leader tonight.”
McBride admitted after the game she has experienced self-doubt at times this season, given her age (30) and the grueling aspect of her year-round professional basketball schedule with no built-in break, and forgot how to be Kayla McBride.
“There’s no amount of media or social media or whatever, that can be harder on me that I’m going be as hard as I am on myself. And I hold myself to a very, very high standard and coach knows that,” McBride explained. “I just want to win so bad and I want to be great for this team. [Cheryl] just said just mentally, just get over that hump.”
To help her do that, McBride turned to her younger sister, Karlee.
“Actually, a big thing was my sister. So my sister knows me better than anybody else,” McBride said. “She was like ‘Dude, just focus on like the little details, you know?’ Hold my follow through and getting up on my shot and just kind of erasing all the rest of the stuff that happened.”
The former No. 3 overall pick can get lost in the grind of her schedule, which is why she leans on her sister.
“She’s just saying, ‘Relax, shoot the ball, it’s who you are!’,” McBride said. “Sometimes I think when you get so caught up in the grind, you kind of forget all the things that you did to get there. So, just getting back to who I am before basketball. Just remind myself all the work that I’ve done and put in and just playing. This is the game that I love.”
Most importantly, throughout her struggles, McBride has kept at the forefront that everyone in the organization has her back.
“We’re still in a good position for how we started this season. I want to be able to maximize as much as I can and be the best version of myself for his team,” she said. “[I’m] just trying to always consistently believe in myself and know that my teammates and the coaching staff believes in me and know what I can do.”
McBride’s 13 first half points kept the Lynx afloat throughout a sluggish start plagued by limited off-ball movement, 11 turnovers, and missing open looks that resulted in a poor, 13/34 (38%) shooting performance, and ultimately, a 38-37 halftime deficit.
That continued for the first 3:17 of the quarter, before Reeve called timeout with her team in a nine-point hole, the deepest of the game. Then, it all changed.
Lynx forward Jess Shepard came out of the huddle beside McBride.
“‘Let’s go, pick up the energy!’” McBride told her. And boy, did she.
Shepard relentlessly attacked rookie forward Emily Engstler, scoring six points in a span of 1:10 of game time, culminating with an and-1. She went on to draw two more fouls on Engstler in the quarter with her physicality, will to out-work the rookie, and crafty moves with the ball inside.
On the other end, the Lynx were getting stops and turning them into points in transition. Another Shepard score and Shepard dime later, the lead was three, and McBride was yelling at the Fever bench to call a damn timeout.
The pair of Notre Dame alumnae became a two-woman wrecking crew that just destroyed the Fever’s chances of winning the third quarter. They were unselfish and confident on the offensive end while flying around to make correct rotations, getting their hands on passes, and forcing tough shots defensively.
“We knew we needed to come out and play connected. Coach called that timeout and then we came out of it [knowing] we needed to get defensive stops so that we could go on runs,” Shepard said postgame. And I think we did a great job pushing in transition, but what led to that was our defense.”
Shepard added another assist to McBride before McBuckets drained a triple, and all of a sudden the Lynx had poured on a 15-0 run in 2:44 of game-time to regain control of the game, 58-52, late in the third quarter.
“Jess Shepard is growing right before our eyes and people don’t realize it. It’s a lot of internal stuff, practice. She’s grown up so much, she’s consistently growing up. I love that she has Natalie and Syl ahead of her, DD, because they’re kind of guiding her,” McBride said postgame. “It’s not easy, but she’s really bought into her role. And I think that she’s being a star in her role right now and it’s amazing for us.”
Minnesota won the final 5:13 of the quarter 24-5 — virtually all of it coming with Fowles off the floor getting much-needed rest — and held a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter.
By the time it was all said and done, Shepard finished the third quarter with 11 points on 4/4 shooting, two rebounds, two assists, while McBride added 10 points on 4/7 shooting to go with two assists. Neither player turned it over in their 17:20 of collective play in the third.
“If you’ve been around our team, you know, the second group just gives us so much energy. So much playing the way you want to play, playing with and for each other, getting the thing moving side to side, sharing it,” Reeve said, explaining why her team got separation before citing the energy of Shepard, McBride and Natalie Achonwa, as well as Rachel Banham’s well-rounded game.
Following a game in which she didn’t get much help from her teammates, Fowles came out in the fourth quarter ready to take the baton to the finish line.
She dominated on the defensive interior, securing six of her game-high 12 boards and holding the Fever to shoot just 3/9 in the paint in the final frame. Fowles also put on full display perhaps the most underrated aspect of her game, playmaking.
But, it wouldn’t be a wholly dominant Sylvia Fowles “I’m better than you and you can’t stop” quarter if she wasn’t putting the ball in the hole. The timeless star consistently won positioning both in the post in half-court offense and off of misses to get her buckets.
“Their pressure just kind of made the floor a little more spread. So there was a little more one on one opportunity. Syl really worked for it,” Reeve explained, saying the coaching staff asked the players to be more intentional than Thursday night in looking for Fowles inside. “We were having success with Syl down there, because obviously Syl is terrific in the high-low game.”
Your favorite post player’s favorite post player racked up 11 points on 4/6 shooting, six rebounds and two assists in her eight fourth quarter minute by the time the final buzzer sounded with the scoreboard reading 87-77 in a resounding Lynx win.
Reeve made sure to let the league know her feelings on the team’s travel situation after the game.
Cheryl Reeve held nothing back in voicing her displeasure with the team's travel schedule.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) July 16, 2022
The Lynx played a home game at 7 PM CT last night, then had to be at the facility by 5 AM CT today for a 7 AM CT flight to Indy -- in the eastern timezone -- for a 6 PM CT tip tonight. pic.twitter.com/xhuQjWl78y
Despite the circumstances, that “nobody cares” message sure resonated with Lynx players because they’re all mentally tough professionals who all relish the opportunity to do what they do every day.
“You could look at it, ‘We had to wake up at 430 this morning.’ But at the same time you’re doing something that you love,” Shepard said of her feelings on the situation postgame. “So I think it’s obviously hard and you got to take care of yourself, but at the same time just to be able to do what you love every day is special and something that doesn’t last forever. So just take advantage of it.”
Next up for the Lynx is a Sunday matinee in our Nation’s capital against the Washington Mystics at 2 PM CT on Bally Sports North Extra.