Years ago Napheesa Collier and Jessica Shepard were teammates and roommates for a USA basketball team that won gold at the U-18 World Championships.
Then they went their separate ways. Collier to Connecticut, Shepard to Notre Dame. For the next four years they were, essentially, mortal enemies at the highest level of women’s college basketball.
Saturday at Target Center, in front of an announced 8,524 fans, Collier and Shepard — the Lynx’s first- and second-round draft picks — made rather impressive WNBA debuts in an 89-71 opening-night victory over Chicago.
Collier, in the starting lineup only because of knee injuries that kept both Seimone Augustus and Karima Christmas-Kelly on the bench, scored a game-high 27 points, hitting eight of 10 shots, eight of 11 free throws, in the process outplaying Chicago veteran Diamond DeShields, then making the most out of a mismatch against Allie Quigley.
Shepard came off the bench and scored just three points. But she led the Lynx in both rebounds (13) and assists (six).
Here’s to reunions.
“UConn-Notre Dame, we had some big rivalry games,’’ Shepard said. “It’s a lot of fun to be on the same team as her again.’’
“I’m just glad she’s on my team now,’’ Collier said. “I had to play against her the last few years. She’s an aggressive rebounder. She goes and gets the ball. To have her on my team? It feels good.’’
A lot felt good Saturday, after the Lynx shook off a listless first quarter. After falling behind 24-22 after 10 minutes, the Lynx outscored the Sky 67-47 the rest of the way.
They outrebounded Chicago 46-29, turning 17 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points.
It was a nice night for a lot of folks. Center Sylvia Fowles, one of just three players returning from last year’s team, had 16 points and 10 rebounds in just 26 minutes of playing time.
In their Lynx debuts, Odyssey Sims had 11 points and Lexie Brown 10.
But then there was Collier and Shepard, who were on the floor when Fowles went to the bench with four fouls in the third quarter, part of a lineup that began to run the Sky out of the gym.
Collier, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft, had the biggest WNBA rookie debut since Candace Parker scored 34 for Los Angeles in 2008. Shepard’s 13 rebounds were the most in a rookie debut since DeTrina White had 13 for New York in 2004.
Collier, a power forward in college, is being asked to play small forward, a transition similar to that of Maya Moore as a rookie in 2011.
Collier got to the free-throw line early, gained confidence and never looked back.
“My goodness, did she raise the bar?’’ asked Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “Now we’ll expect this every time she plays, right?”
Shepard, meanwhile, impressed in a different way.
“It’s not often you see this,’’ Reeve said. “But everything she did in college she’s doing for us as a pro. That’s really hard to do. When you can just drop Jess in and she does exactly the same thing. Her level of confidence about what she’s good at? She’s so competitive.’’
There were some things to clean up. Reeve wasn’t happy about the post defense early. She noted that Shepard also led the team with six turnovers.
But, on a night when the new-look Lynx started so well? Reeve was inclined to let her team revel in the win Sunday before getting back to reality Monday.
Collier and Shepard? They’re just glad they’re back together as teammates.
“Those rookies showed up and showed out,’’ Fowles said. “Especially Phee. I think she rose up. And you had Jess, a rebounding machine. They made it work.’’