WNBA: NaLyssa Smith returns, Carlos Knox 1-0 as Indiana Fever HC

Indiana Fever interim head coach Carlos Knox was triumphant in his first game as a WNBA head coach with his Fever defeating the Los Angeles Sparks 101-96 Friday night in Indianapolis at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, home of the IUPUI Jaguars men’s basketball team, who Knox play for and had his number retired by.

“I had a lot of family members here,” Knox said. “I had a lot of people that respect me at a high level and respect my coaching ability, that support me. … It was just one of those things that a lot of people were able to make it out to see my debut game at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. And I’m IUPUI alumni. It was just one of those situations that was touching to everybody. So me personally, I was very emotional behind it because it felt so heartwarming. It felt so much like just a great, beautiful scenario.”

Wins have been hard to come by for the Fever (3-7) in recent years, as has been well-documented, and it’s the reason they were taking a new direction with Knox at the helm Friday night. Their franchise player, Kelsey Mitchell, said the postgame celebration with Knox was extra meaningful.

“It was priceless. I think for us, obviously a change in leadership, with no disrespect to Coach Marianne (Stanley) because I love her as well. But it was good to see him step into it so fast. And we respond fast. You know, get him a win here in his hometown, essentially, going to IUPUI. His name is in the rafters. It just meant a lot. And we knew what it was going to take, messing with a good team like LA. And we was just happy that we could walk away with this one.”

As expected, the Fever were able to make more threes than the Sparks (four more) and they also made seven more free throws. Indiana was an impressive 11-of-21 from distance and 26-of-29 at the stripe. Defensively, it surrendered 30 points to Nneka Ogwumike and a career-high 19 to Katie Lou Samuelson, but held one of the best centers in the game in Liz Cambage to 2-of-11 shooting from the field.

“One of the things we wanted to do, we wanted to catch her early, in transition,” Knox said. “As she was running down the floor, we wanted to make sure that we were at least disruptive. Because when you have a force like Liz, it’s very difficult for you if you allow her to get a position in the paint. And she’s just a great player. So as she sprints down the floor, you have to kind of get in the way so to speak and you have to make sure that everybody around you is super aware. And our guards were aware. We put an extreme amount of ball pressure on the passer. And when she did finally catch on the block, we tried to send a hard-core double team so that she would become uncomfortable.”

K. Mitchell led the Fever with 22 points and also had three assists and two steals. Victoria Vivians was tied for second with 17 points to go along with six rebounds and four helpers. NaLyssa Smith (five boards) also had 17 points in her return from an ankle sprain that had kept her out four games. The Fever are 3-3 with Smith and 0-4 without her. She is second on the team behind K. Mitchell in scoring with 13.7 points per game.

“NaLyssa Smith’s presence alone, it brings a tremendous amount of confidence to our team,” Knox said. “Her ability to think the game, play the game and her ability to see the game is tremendous. She has a great feel. And we need her out there because it just adds another piece that’s very valuable for us.

“And when we talked today, she talked to me about really being focused on coming back and making an impact. And I told, I said ‘Hey, I know you’ll make an impact. I do. But I need you not to put too much pressure on yourself because you’re coming off an injury. And she looked at me and she said ‘Hey I got you coach.’ So I had to make sure that I played her in the right way. And I went to her a little early just to kind of get the feel of how she was feeling. And she kind of showed me that she was OK.”

“It felt amazing to be back,” Smith said. “Every single day I was hurt, I was just counting the days down of when I could come back and play with this team. And (the ankle) feels good. It’s a little sore, but it’s not like excruciating pain.”

Smith attempted three or less treys in each of her first four games, but has taken five and four in her last two, respectively, with three makes in each contest.

“Know whatever is falling, that’s what I kind of fall back on,” the 6-foot-4 power forward said of balancing inside scoring with outside scoring. “So the three was falling, so I kept shooting it. Just gaining confidence as an all-around player, trying to play inside-out, it’s harder to guard, so I definitely lean on that.”

Emily Engstler nearly notched her second career double-double and second in a row with 13 points, a team-high nine boards and a game-high four blocks. Danielle Robinson rounded out the Fever’s key contributors with 10 points and a game- and season-high 11 assists. Robinson played 28:34 after playing slightly under 20 in each of her previous two games, in which she combined for just six points and five assists.

“We had a long talk yesterday about her play. And she said ‘Coach, what do you think about my game, what do you think I’m doing wrong,’” Knox said. And I said ‘DRob, you’re a veteran at this game. You’re not doing anything wrong. If I had to say something, it would be, one out of 10, I think you’re about a seven and a half with your focus level. You just came from overseas, you played a long season. And I don’t think you’re all the way here yet as far as the WNBA season with your focus level.’ And sometimes that happens. When you come from another country and seasons, it takes you a while to get acclimated.

“So she looked me dead in the eye and she said, ‘Coach, I can understand what you’re saying. And I can appreciate what you’re saying. Because it’s the absolute truth.’ So today, she came to shootaround extremely focused. More than I’ve seen her this year. And I knew she would have a great game.”

Knox is 1-0 as a WNBA head coach and for him to get it done at Indiana Farmers Coliseum makes for a cool story. But only for a night.

“We will be breaking film down tonight about some of the things that happened throughout the course of the game,” Knox said Friday. “In order for us to be successful, we have to understand that this is a long road. And we have to be prepared to play every single game. Yes, we did something marvelous tonight. And we established ourselves that we were able to overcome an emotional night and I’m excited and I’m happy about that. So now, the real work starts. … We’re in the lab tonight.”