Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles help each other thrive.
by Josh Flynn
It was only April 7, 2009, when University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma last directed Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles up and down a basketball court. Last weekend the pair reunited with their former mentor and a host of UConn legends as members of the US women’s national basketball team. In lieu of a tradition WNBA All-Star competition, Team USA battled a group of WNBA All-Stars at the Mohegan Sun arena in Connecticut, a warm up for the World Championships in September. “It was exciting because when you leave college you don’t expect to be coached by your college coach again,” Montgomery says. “To have that opportunity was refreshing.”
When most WNBA players enter the league, they hold on to their collegiate roots in spirit only. Montgomery and Charles have been fortunate to remain physically connected to their UConn years through not only USA basketball but as teammates on the Connecticut Sun. On January 12, the Sun traded long time point guard Lindsay Whalen and their No. 2 pick in the 2010 Draft to the Minnesota Lynx for Montgomery and the No. 1 pick. When April 8 rolled around, the Sun drafted Tina Charles, who two days earlier helped UConn win a second straight national championship and 78th-straight victory.
Montgomery and Charles were suddenly able to help each other adjust to new circumstances. “Its definitely exciting,” Charles says. “I have that comfort level. She’s a little big sister to me. I look up to her game and how she approaches being on the court. She tells me little things—what to expect, telling me its going to be physical out there. She’s been in the league already for a year so she’ll tell me what post players like to do.”
“There is a familiarity that you can’t put together,” Montgomery says. “We played together for three years so we are comfortable together on the court.”
Montgomery says competing for UConn prepares players for transitioning to the WNBA. Charles proves that theory on the court. She currently leads all rookies in scoring at 15.8 ppg and leads the league in rebounding with 12.3 rpg. While Montgomery feeds her teammate info on what WNBA centers like to do, most of her guidance comes off the court, helping Charles adjust to the freedoms of WNBA life, she says, a difference from the regimented life college basketball teams lead where even meals were planned out for the athletes.
The move to Connecticut has boosted Montgomery’s numbers slightly as well. The sophomore point guard is currently averaging 11 ppg, 2.3 rpg, and 3.8 assists. She’s started 15 of the Sun’s 19 games this season.
Despite Montgomery’s efforts to help Charles adjust, there is one aspect of the game the rookie center is having difficulties with: losing. She hadn’t lost a basketball game in two years. In the second game of the season, Atlanta beat the Sun 97-82. “It was definitely a bad taste in my mouth,” Charles says.
Connecticut spent the bulk of the first half of the WNBA season chasing Atlanta for first place in the Eastern Conference. As the team approached the all-star break, they dropped three straight games and fell to fourth place. Both Montgomery and Charles blame the skid on mental lapses. They say it will take full concentration to climb to the top and be ready for the Playoffs.
“Coach tells us we are going to be in a zone at the beginning of a game and instead we go into a [man-to-man defense],” Charles says, giving an example of some of the team’s mental mistakes. “It’s just us being pros and getting things done.”
“We have to take care of certain things that have been haunting us like rebounding and things like team philosophy—keys to the game type things,” adds Montgomery. “We need to clean that kind of stuff up. There are a lot of little things we have to clean up for us to be good.”
The Sun began the second half of the season strong with a comeback road victory against Indiana. The Fever opened the fourth quarter missing 10 straight shots. Connecticut took advantage of the drought with an 11-point run, taking the lead and never looking back. It was a positive finish to a long six-game road trip. Head coach Mike Thibault shook up his starting line up for the second straight game, bringing Montgomery off the bench.
Playing for Thibault has been a pleasant experience for both players. They find similarities in his system to those of Auriemma. “Coach Thibault has the same philosophy when it comes to pushing the ball and fast break as much as possible,” Montgomery says. “So that’s exactly what I like and need.”
“They both want to perfect everything,” Charles says. “They want to win. I definitely learned from Coach Auriemma and now I’m ready to learn from Coach Thibault.”
If perfection is Thibault’s goal, Charles and Montgomery, together, know the road to reach it.