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Sleepy new Starzz coach always ready for practice
Next up: road matinee at Sacramento

Fred Williams spent the first night of his Utah Starzz head-coaching career sitting up till about 3 a.m. playing his electric piano and thinking about his whirlwind promotion after Frank Layden unexpectedly resigned just four games into the WNBA season.

A few hours later, a sleep-deprived Williams was back in the Delta Center getting ready for the team picture and getting ready for his first real practice as Starzz boss."I didn't get much sleep at all," Williams confessed. But his eyes were still wide open at noon Tuesday. "I thrive on practices and getting a team ready for the next opponent. I'm going to continue to do the things I've been doing as an assistant, but making more of a decision role in the game."

His first practice, Tuesday morning in the Delta Center, was uptempo with a number of competitive drills that had players laughing like the dreadful last week of their lives never occurred. Two blowout losses, ill feelings, unkind words all seemed forgotten as players tried to outdo each other in 1-on-1 or 3-on-3 situations and spent a good amount of time repeating halfcourt 5-on-5 play so players will get a feel for where each other will set up in games.

Williams and assistant coach Richard Smith jumped into the fun to end the practice, shoving players with all their might with big umpire-pad-like pillows, while the Starzz tried in pairs to score as many baskets as possible in 20 seconds. The idea was to shake off the bumps of physical teams under the basket and just score.

The Starzz have used the pads before, but this got into a real WCW match. Utah now calls them their "Minnesota pads" because it reminds them of how physically abused they were by the Minnesota Lynx a week earlier.

Utah hosts Minnesota Saturday night for a rematch following its rematch Thursday afternoon with the Monarchs in Sacramento. Utah beat Sacto 85-75 Saturday in Layden's last game as coach and Williams' last game as assistant.

"I've had about 18 hours to think about it," Williams, 42, said of his new job that started when Frank Layden announced his resignation Monday morning just four games into the Starzz's 1999 season.

"It's a nice feeling. It's a change for me because I've been an assistant coach for the Starzz, but it's a nice fit for myself and the team. I think you'll see a lot of different things, in the team being more aggressive on defense and aggressive with the basketball."

"We put in a quick hitter and worked on transition defense," said top scorer/rebounder Natalie Williams about the first practice. "A lot of people are going to be more relaxed, but we've got to maintain our intensity to do the little things in the games and make sure we don't get sloppy."

Point guard Debbie Black liked the structured, Jazz-like play that Layden tried to install, but she said she rarely felt like herself until Tuesday. "I feel just more relaxed as a player, like I can settle down and play my game. It's hard to explain. I'm not afraid to make a mistake," she said, adding she had always tried to be perfect because she very much wanted to please the almost-legendary Layden.

The Starzz were to have a morning Delta Center practice and then board an afternoon flight for Sacramento Wednesday. Thursday's game, at 2 p.m. MDT at ARCO Arena, is part of a WNBA-wide edict to have at least one mid-week afternoon game.