The Minnesota Lynx never planned to give Crystal Dangerfield many minutes earlier this season. Yet somehow the former Connecticut guard was on the floor in the closing seconds of a tight game on Thursday.
She had been announced as the W.N.B.A.’s rookie of the year that afternoon. She started her first-ever professional playoff game that night.
Entering the playoffs, Dangerfield averaged 16.2 points per game to lead the Lynx in scoring. Yet at halftime of Thursday’s single-elimination game, the Phoenix Mercury had contained her to just 2 points. Dangerfield maintained her composure, found her shot and ended the night with 17 points to give Minnesota the 80-79 win.
Dangerfield was overcome with emotion afterward. Her voice was noticeably shaky during an interview on ESPN as she fought back what she later called happy tears.
She wasn’t supposed to be doing postgame interviews, or helping eliminate Diana Taurasi, who is the W.N.B.A.’s career scoring leader, and the Phoenix Mercury from the playoffs. Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve had been transparent with Dangerfield about not intending to play her much at all at first.
“I’m like, OK, you can let that bother you, sit, pout, just let it be. Or you can turn things around for yourself, try to go and earn some minutes and change their mind about what the situation was going to look like,” Dangerfield said in a telephone interview.
She chose the latter.
The Lynx have now advanced to a best-of-five semifinal series beginning Tuesday against the Seattle Storm, who tied the Las Vegas Aces for the league’s best record. It would have been easy for the rookie to be overcome by her nerves on Thursday, and even easier now. But that’s not how the Tennessee native was raised.
Chris and Davonna Dangerfield, who both served in the United States Army, emphasized discipline for their three children.
“They didn’t let us get away with anything,” Dangerfield said. “It was, schedule here, schedule there, do this the right way, and at the end of the day be a good person too.”
That foundation served her well at UConn, where players are expected to buy into a team-first mentality and learn humility.
“Freshman year at UConn is unlike any other. You go in having felt like you could do anything on the court, and that is stripped away,” Dangerfield said. “You have to learn that system, learn what they’re asking you to do about playing hard and stuff like that. I feel like after you go through that, you’re good. Nothing’s going to have you too high or too low.”
UConn Coach Geno Auriemma was tough on his backcourt facilitators, and Dangerfield was no exception.
“When Crystal was here we wanted to — as she mentioned one time — to make her grow up fast,’’ he said. “And there were some great moments that she had as a freshman, but not enough of them.”
But as Auriemma watched from home on Thursday as Dangerfield faced off against the Mercury, he was reminded of the 2019 N.C.A.A. tournament game against U.C.L.A. in which Dangerfield scored 11 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter to give UConn a 69-61 win and a trip to the round of 8.
“During the game and after the game she was very emotional because there was something that she wanted to do, and she felt great about her accomplishments. And I saw that the other night,” Auriemma said.
Once again Dangerfield is in a position where she must grow up fast. Picked in the second round of the 2020 draft, her place on the Lynx roster wasn’t secure.
But with the veteran guard Odyssey Sims arriving late as she worked her way back from maternity leave and Lexie Brown entering concussion protocol after the second game of the season, Dangerfield started on July 30 and has each game since. She’s the lowest-drafted player to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
“She’s got a motivation about her,’’ said Katie Smith, a Lynx assistant coach. “She knows that she can hang in this league, but I think that also has helped fuel her.”
“She just shows up every day and doesn’t talk a whole lot, just goes out, does it,’’ Smith added. “I’m not necessarily surprised, but just happy because she’s really been a huge piece of why we are where we are right now.”
Smith, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, knows what it takes to win. As a player, she won two titles with the W.N.B.A.’s Detroit Shock, two more in the American Basketball League before that, and three Olympic gold medals. She said she is impressed with the way Dangerfield approaches her work.
That said, the coaches, including Reeve, are not shy about telling Dangerfield what she needs to improve — mostly because Dangerfield has proved she can take it.
“I was talking to Katie earlier today and was like, I have a long list for her in the off-season,’’ Reeve told reporters on Saturday. “And then I thought, what the hell am I going to wait for the off-season for? Why don’t I tell her now and let’s see if she can’t evolve? Anything we’ve given her, she’s done a great job of.”
Reeve, who last week was named coach of the year, would not divulge what was on Dangerfield’s to-do list. But the rookie has had a few extra days to make plans to execute them before Tuesday’s game, which was postponed from Sunday after multiple Seattle players received inconclusive results on their coronavirus tests. The league is playing out its season in a bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in which players and staff are tested daily.
Dangerfield said she could not say what this season means for her W.N.B.A career beyond that more hard work is in store.
“Honestly, the only thing that changed is where the bar would have been at the end of the season,” Dangerfield said. She continued: “I just want to not let my level of play drop below where it’s at right now. That’s all it is. It’s just wanting to get better each day, each game, really.”