Amber Jacobs, left, and Danielle Bishop share a laugh in practice. Jacobs has helped the sophomore become Toledo's leading scorer.
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CLEVELAND - With one of the youngest groups of guards in the Mid-American Conference on his roster, Mark Ehlen elected not to establish a long learning curve and then nurse them along slowly.
The University of Toledo women's coach tossed them into the fire - against a pro.
Ehlen took an unconventional approach when he named Amber Jacobs, a guard with the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA, to his staff prior to the start of the season. He put her to work on improving his guards, but not with a clipboard and a list of plays. Jacobs has been going at it with the UT players on the practice court.
"She's not here as window dressing, and she's not here because she's a WNBA player," Ehlen said. "She brings instant credibility because she plays in the pros, but these kids have not only had to listen to what she says, they've had to play against it every day in practice. What she says is what she does, and it has been really outstanding."
Jacobs, a four-year starter at Boston College, where she was an All-American as a senior, was a third-round pick by the Lynx in the 2004 WNBA draft and joined the UT staff after her rookie season in the pros.
"From day one, I could tell she has all of the makings of a fine coach," Ehlen said. "She knows the game and she loves to teach. Her father is a coach, and as a point guard she has that mentality."
Jacobs, who averaged 3.2 points, 1.5 assists and 1.1 rebounds per games in her rookie WNBA season, said she was intrigued by the opportunity to work with a very young collection of backcourt players at UT.
Rocket assistant and Minnesota Lynx pro Amber Jacobs tests the defensive ability of Toledo's Olivia Terry. Terry was named to the All-MAC freshman team. Jacobs was an All-American at Boston College.
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Junior Crystal Young had started just two games in her Toledo career but was the most veteran guard on the team. Sophomore Danielle Bishop had played a lot as a freshman, but struggled with consistency and her shot. The rest were freshmen.
"We were very young at that position, but during these last six months or so, you talk about rewarding, seeing these girls grow and mature and really come together down the stretch, it's been incredibly exciting," Jacobs said. "That's why I wanted to get into coaching, to see other girls become great players, and squeeze all of that potential out of them."
Young has been the starting point guard all season for UT, while Bishop is the team's leading scorer. Freshman Olivia Terry has stepped in and started 21 games, and was named to the MAC's all-freshman team after finishing third on the team in scoring.
"The biggest area of my game that Amber has helped me with has been my shot," said Bishop, a third-team All-MAC selection this season. "She has really worked with me on focusing on the rim and not the ball."
Jacobs said the practice part of coaching came naturally, but the additional work involved with the job was a bit of a shock.
"When I first came here, it wasn't really what I expected," Jacobs said. "On the court it was, but away from the court and in the office, I never really realized how much time and effort my coaches had put in to making sure we could be the best team possible. That took some adjustment."
Jacobs said she went from being a college player in the spring, to the pros in the summer, then back to the college game as a coach in the fall.
"Being a player only a few months before I got here, I understood that side of things," Jacobs said. "Being on the coaching side, I could then bring both sides together. I wanted to come in and be able to give the guards fundamentals and the skills necessary to become better players. I don't want to seem biased, but I feel like you have to have strong guard play to really make a team successful."
Jacobs and the Rockets take on Marshall tonight in the quarterfinals of the MAC tournament here at Gund Arena. She'll return to the Lynx next month, and then be back at UT following the conclusion of the WNBA season.
"This arrangement works because she is really good at this," Ehlen said.
"Amber has a real passion for the game, she's energetic and she has a real understanding of the game. She is way beyond her years in that regard, and I trust her implicitly."
Jacobs said she hopes to play a long time in the WNBA, and then get into coaching full-time. After a tenuous adjustment period, this is where she wants to be.
"Back in October, I thought I was already getting gray hair at 22," Jacobs said. "But now I've seen these players develop into a good group that is coming on at the end. I get the best of both worlds. I still get to experience the game as a player, and I get the rewards of being a coach. Two dreams of mine have come true."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.
When: 7:30 p.m.
Records: UT 14-14, Marshall 18-9
Last meeting: Marshall beat UT 73-56 in Huntington on Jan.
29 in their only meeting this season.
Outlook: The Rockets face the hottest team in the MAC
in Marshall, winner of 13 of its last 15 games. This season,
the Thundering Herd took a share of the MAC East Division
championship for the fi rst time. Marshall is active and athletic
and led by Sikeetha Shepard-Hall, who is ninth in the MAC in
scoring at 15.2 ppg. KaShawna Curry is Marshall s main threat
inside. They are very physical, very aggressive, and they attack
you, UT head coach Mark Ehlen said. The fi rst time we
played them I think they had us on our heels and we were a bit
tentative, and a little intimidated by their style. They are a load,
but I think we re a better team now, and we re going into this
game with more confi dence. The Rockets have won their last
two games and had at least four players score in double fi gures
in the last three games. Toledo has averaged 73.0 points
per game in that span. I m not sure that we have the ability to
blow people out, Ehlen said, but we ve been able to win
some games down the stretch. We can beat teams, and I don t
care how we do it, I just want to do it.