Carrie Carleton and her husband, Rob, were on the golf course late Wednesday afternoon in Chatham, Ontario, when the text came. In a half hour, their daughter Bridget would make her first WNBA start.
“We were coming home to watch the game anyway,” Carrie Carleton said. “But we’re thinking, we can get there a little late. But then we literally ran off the golf course.”
Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly was set to watch the game, too. He was at home, with his son — a Cyclones assistant — and their families, when he saw the tweet.
“Saw it on the Lynx account,” he said. “I looked at my phone and just started yelling, ‘Bridget’s starting! Bridget’s starting!’ ”
What happened Wednesday, apparently, was an international event.
With Sylvia Fowles a late scratch because of a sore calf, Carleton found herself in the Lynx starting lineup. What transpired over the next two hours was, frankly, kind of historic.
Carleton responded with 25 points on 11-for-16 shooting in the Lynx’s blowout of New York. Carleton made all three of her three-point attempts. She scored on pullups, off picks, behind the arc, in the post. She added seven rebounds.
She became only the third player in the past 20 years to score at least 25 points and get at least five rebounds in her first WNBA start. The others: Napheesa Collier for the Lynx last year, and Candice Parker.
The first person she called afterward was her mom. “She FaceTimed me walking to the bus,” Carrie Carleton said. “She was like, ‘What the heck was that?’ It was awesome. Just awesome.”
A big fan club
It wasn’t just her family — grandma watched the game back in Chatham on Wednesday, too — and her former college coaches who were celebrating. This is a true feel-good story.
A Cyclones star, the 6-1 Carleton was taken by Connecticut in the second round (21st overall) in the 2019 draft. She made the team and saw limited action in four games before, in early July, injuries forced the Sun to change its roster and waive Carleton.
Reeve had liked Carleton in college as a stretch forward for Team Canada in international competition. Late last summer the Lynx signed her to a seven-day contract. Just before September, they signed her for the rest of the season. Reeve could see the basketball IQ, the skills. After the season ended Reeve gave Carleton a message.
“Just, athletically, she needed to be better,” Reeve said. “We gave her workouts to improve her ability, her speed. Just to help her be the best athlete she could be. And she took it to heart. When I first saw her in Minneapolis [this spring] it was, like, ‘Wow.’ She had transformed her body. She said she felt like she was flying when she played.”
That Carleton would put in the work is no surprise. Wednesday she credited her mom — a college player herself — for being the first person to teach her fundamentals. Carleton was already tall by age 10, but her mom made sure she learned a guard’s skills.
Both Carrie and Rob are teachers, and Carrie has coached basketball. And, as Bridget grew up, all Carrie ever heard was, “Mom let’s go to the gym, let’s go to the gym.”
“So we would go,” Carrie Carleton said. “I rebounded for her a lot, gave suggestions early. But she learned from every coach along the way.”
Fennelly tells a similar story. He never had a kid who worked harder, he said. The players had a pass code to get into the practice facility to go workout whenever they wanted, and Carleton was always there. One time Fennelly thought she was a bit worn down and needed a break. He told her if he saw her in the gym the next few days she wouldn’t play in the next game.
“She wouldn’t talk to me the next two days,” Fennelly said.
Head down, keep working
Postgame Wednesday it almost seemed like Carleton was reluctant to talk about herself. She thanked her mom. She thanked her coaches. She thanked her teammates. What would she remember the most?
“The win,” she said. “Obviously, starting. That’s not something I expected this year. But happy we got the win. Happy to be 4-1.”
Said Fennelly: “Amazing kid. Amazing person. Amazing family. Someone who is so easy to root for. It was great watching the game. You’re living through it, every moment. You want so badly for it to go well for her. You want her to have her moment. But it was nerve-racking. I’m not going to lie.”
Carleton is not going to start every game. She is not going to score 25 points often. But she has earned a spot in the rotation by working hard and taking advantage of an opportunity.
The Carleton family would make the drive from Chatham — about an hour from Detroit — to Ames often to see Bridget play. They had planned to do the same with her in Minneapolis until coronavirus got in the way. But they can still watch on TV.
“I’m pretty proud,” Carrie Carleton said. “I guess that’s the first word that comes to mind. And excited, for her. I know how hard she works.”