At Washington State, Harold Rhodes devised defensive schemes to stop Stanford’s Jennifer Azzi and Kate Starbird. On the blackboard and in the practice sessions, the strategy seemed sound.
Then the games began. When Azzi whistled a cross-court pass through traffic or Starbird pulled up for a 3 in transition, Rhodes discovered the meaning of helplessness.
“You’d come up with a great game plan, but 5 minutes in, you’d have to tear it up because it wasn’t working,” the Cougar coach said of his games against Stanford. “The best defense against them is to just pray they have an off night.”
Tonight at Mercer Arena, the coaches devising defenses for those two stars might experience the same vulnerable feeling Rhodes did. The Seattle Reign, led by Starbird, square off against the Azzi-powered San Jose Lasers. Both teams are off to surprisingly bad starts: 1-5.
This is unfamiliar territory to Azzi and Starbird. Stanford averaged only five defeats a season in the years they played there - Azzi from 1987-90, Starbird from 1993-97.
Individually, Azzi, 29, is excelling, averaging 17.2 points and shooting 47.6 percent from 3-point territory and 93.1 percent from the foul line. She also is averaging nearly three steals per game.
Uncharacteristically, Starbird, 22, is struggling as she adjusts to the professional game. She is scoring 13.2 points a night but laboring to get there, shooting 34.2 percent. Starbird has also committed 26 turnovers.
In their first meeting, Oct. 15 in San Jose, Azzi shut down Starbird and blew away the Reign by scoring the majority of her 10 points in the fourth quarter. Starbird managed to make just 3 of 11 from the field and has been off-target since.
“It’s much harder to get open shots in the ABL,” Starbird said.