Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

WNBA Finals: Minnesota Holds Off Los Angeles 85-76 to Take A fourth Lynx Title in Seven Seasons

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

MINNEAPOLIS — Capping another thrilling WNBA best-of-five finals in a second straight penultimate Game 5, the Minnesota Lynx made history Wednesday night by making sure more recent history would not repeat at the hands of the rival Los Angeles Sparks, pulling out an 85-76 victory in front of an energetic sellout crowd of 14,632 at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena.

It’s the fourth WNBA crown in seven years under coach Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle University star in Philadelphia, who grew up across the Delaware River in a South Jersey suburb.

That ties her for most WNBA titles with Van Chancellor, who won the first four WNBA crowns (1997-2000) with the former Houston Comets, while it also ties her with Chancellor and Los Angeles’ Brian Agler for championships coaching at the women’s pro hoops level in the United States.

Agler won an earlier WNBA crown with the Seattle Storm and previously to that, two with the Columbus Quest in the short-lived American Basketball League.

Minnesota was considered an endangered franchise when Reeve, who had been assistant on the champion former Detroit Shock and also an aide with the former Charlotte Sting, took the helm in 2010.

The first summer was a struggle but it led to gaining former University of Connecticut great Maya Moore as the overall No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft leading to the run in the last seven years that also includes two other finals appearances.

The Lynx are a group that has gotten better with age with a core of Olympians in Lindsay Whalen, Moore, Seimone Augustus and a few years later Sylvia Fowles and stayed together. When asked to talk about the consistency of success, Reeve’s answer brought a rarely seen emotion.

“Obviously, it’s the most special time in our lives from a professional standpoint, but it’s the people,” Reeve said choking back tears of fondness. “It’s the people that we do it with that just — we’re in it for life, this group. We’re in it for life, and that’s just an incredible blessing that I feel to be able to be around it every single day.”

But as gaudy as the numbers appear, they should have already been a tad better.

A year ago on the verge of winning championship No. 4 near here in their regular home at the Target Center, currently under renovation, the Lynx fell to Los Angeles on a shot in the final seconds that denied them becoming the first WNBA team to win back-to-back trophies since the Sparks were the last franchise to achieve the feat in 2001-02.

Prior to that came the first four Houston Comets titles.

This year’s series was similar to the one of 12 months ago with L.A. stealing Game 1, losing game 2 in town here, then winning Game 3 only to lose Game four both played at home and send the final round to its conclusion back here.

This time, however, just at the moment when things were appearing dire once more as a late 9-0 run eclipsed earlier double digit leads by the Lynx to pull Los Angeles within three at 79-76 with 34.9 seconds left in regulation, Minnesota applied the breaks.

Moore, likely the impact player of the past two decades, popped a six-foot dagger followed by regular season and playoffs MVP Fowles grabbing Odyssey Sims’ missed three-pointer.

Fowles was fouled, canned both free throws, and then after Candace Parker, one of the Sparks superstars, missed a three-pointer, Rebekkah Brunson, the former Georgetown star, grabbed a rebound and Whalen then went to the line to wrap it up with the final points in the arena of her alma mater, which she led to a Final Four appearance.

Brunson, another of the longstanding part of the Lynx core, became the first player with five titles, having won with the former Sacramento Monarchs and a few years later landing as a Minnesota pick when the roster was dispersed.

Fowles, who didn’t play well in last year’s final, “I looked at Game 5 on film (before playing here) and she was terrible,” Reeve said, was much different this time with double doubles in each of the five games.

Wednesday night, she was the key force in a first-half attack on the boards that caused Los Angeles to keep playing catch-up most of the way.

“I’m not a person to make excuses,” Agler said. “We just didn’t do what we needed to do to keep her off the glass. We tried to eliminate staying in a rotation as much as we could, tried to keep bigger bodies on them, but they were persistent, more persistent than we were, especially in the first 20 minutes.”

Minnesota finished the combined first two quarters leading 41-35 at intermission, holding a 27-15 rebounding advantage, including 10-3 on the offensive glass.

Los Angeles also struggled on 3-point attempts, shooting 2-for-18 for the game.

The Sparks weren’t helped either by Nneka Ogwumike, the game-winning hero of last year for Los Angeles with her putback. She had 11 points and fouled out. Parker had 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Chelsea Gray scored 15 points and Sims had 14.

All five Lynx starters scored in double figures, More led the group with 18 points and also had 10 rebounds, Fowles and Whalen each followed with 17 while Fowles had a season-high 20 rebounds, Augustus had 14 points and Brunson scored 13.

As a team the Lynx final numbers domination on the boards was 46-29 and they outscored the Sparks, 19-4 on second chance points.

“I mean, we’re sad,” Parker said of the loss. “Obviously, we lost. Glad everybody enjoyed the series, it was exciting. That’s all I’ve got. It was a good series. “

“With 20 seconds left, we’re down three,” Agler said of the rally. “That’s a credit to our team, you know, to fight hard, put ourselves in position. We made some really good plays and finished and couldn’t get over the hump.”

Talking about Ogwumike’s foul situation, he said, “You know, in some ways, it didn’t kill us, so we had our chances, that’s what you play for.”

Speaking of when things got dicey in the closing minute, Whalen observed, “Like ‘Coach said, ‘at a certain point, players make plays,’ and Maya made that runner at the free-throw line, which is why she’s Maya Moore, which is also why we like her on our team.

“Every time you do this it gets just a little more special because it gets just a little harder and it gets a little more meaningful because you know it’s not easy, you know it’s not something that we take for granted ever … “ Whalen said.

“But we keep coming back, and that’s just a testament to our organization, to our coach, and to everybody on this team is that we keep fighting, we keep coming back.”

Reeve was an assistant to UConn’s Geno Auriemma on the 2016 USA Olympic gold medalists in Brazil and likely to be picked to work with Dawn Staley in the next cycle.

Speaking of her Lynx’s fortitude, she said, “… I just can’t explain to you in words what it’s like to be those guys and have to walk every single day of greatness, of expectations every single day.

“Now, they wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s just incredibly draining, every night we play, we get a team’s best effort, like every night throughout the regular season. And so it takes a toll on you. I just give them so much credit for their fortitude.”

And now it’s off to overseas and winter ball for most of them. The key is to stay healthy and if so, we might very well all be back here at the end of next summer with Minnesota highlighting another WNBA stellar season, which will be No. 22.

 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

WNBA Finals: Lynx And Sparks Duel Decisive Game Five Again With New History At Stake

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

 No need to quote the legendary Yogi Berra. 

 Minnesota-Los Angeles. Game Five. For the WNBA championship. Again.

 In the hoops version of Ali-Frazier, the two gold standards of the WNBA, the Lynx and Sparks collide Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in a winner-take-all game for the second consecutive year. The only thing different is the venue. Instead of playing in the Target Center, the teams will ball inside of Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota’s campus.

 Lately, the venue hasn’t mattered between these rivals. In the last 12 games between these squads, the composite score between them is an astonishing 908-908. So it’s only right that the Lynx and Sparks play another high stakes contest with everybody watching.

 “It’s very fitting,” said Minnesota guard Maya Moore following Tuesday’s practice. “It makes for a really compelling ending to a 2017 season. Both teams have been showing why they’re the best all year, and I’m just glad we’re able to really play and hopefully the game will go in a way where the best team wins.”

 Moore and the Lynx are looking to reverse last year’s outcome. The Sparks won the title at the Target Center in the decisive fifth game, 77-76. It was easily one of the best games in the history of the WNBA. The game had five lead changes in the final minute. 

 This series has featured more drama than an episode of “Power.” The intensity has been off the charts. As the esteemed writer Sue Favor of womenshoopworld.com tweeted to me during the fourth game, the intensity “was as thick as cement” inside of the Staples Center.

 Chelsea Gray scored the decisive basket in the opener with 2.4 seconds left. In the second game, the Lynx held off a Sparks charge by getting a pair of defensive stops in the last 13 seconds. The games in Los Angeles were pretty one-sided as the Sparks controlled the third game and the Lynx cruised to victory in the fourth game.  

 “We can look at it as a disappointment that we’re playing in a Game 5 or we can look at it as an opportunity,” Sparks center Candace Parker said. “I think that if you poll anyone anywhere around the league that if you have one game and an opportunity to win a championship would you take it. I’m pretty sure everybody would take that. So that’s the mentality we have to have going in. It’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of things that you can reflect on after Game 4 and this entire series of what we can do differently.”

 The Sparks have this on their side. In the last two Finals series, no team has won consecutive games. Each team has an opportunity to add its fourth WNBA title, matching the Houston Comets for the most in league history. The Sparks are looking to become the first team to repeat since the franchise did it in 2001 and 2002 behind Lisa Leslie.

 “I think that’s the good thing about having a series with two great teams,” Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson said after being asked about learning about each other. “It’s about changing, making adjustments and making the little things happen out there. I’m sure they’re saying the same thing. Nobody in here and nobody out there is going to be saying much different. I think we know each extremely well at this point. Now, it’s just time to play.”

A win with the Lynx would make Brunson, a former Georgetown star, the first individual to play on five WNBA champions, having been part of the former Sacramento Monarchs win and henceforth landing with Minnesota in the roster dispersal when the then-NBA owners jettisoned the franchise.

Brunson is currently tied with the famed big three of Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper, who won the first four WNBA crowns as part of the former Houston Comets from 1997 to 2000.

Los Angeles won the next two in 2001 and 2002 and since then no team has won back-to-back titles, which L.A. duplicate while the Sparks would then run coach Brian Agler's collection to five as a women's hoops pro coach in the United States, which would be a record. 

Besides last year's crown, Agler won with the Seattle Storm in the WNBA and previously gained the two Columbus Quest titles in the short-lived American Basketball League in 1997 and 1998. Conversely, his Minnesota counterpart, Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle star in Philadelphia from South Jersey in the suburbs, with a win would tie Agler and former Houston coach Van Chancellor with the U.S. record an Chancellor with the WNBA record.

Reeve, by the way, was on UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s USA staff with last summer's gold medal olympic champs in Brazil and is a top candidate to join South Carolina’s Dawn Staley during the next cyle. She also helped coach Staley when both were with the WNBA former Charlotte Sting.

Meanwhile, Parker leads the Sparks in scoring in this series, averaging 16.6 points per game. Nneka Oguwmike has averaged 9.6 rebounds per contest for the Sparks. Meanwhile, the Lynx has been fueled MVP Sylvia Fowles, who is averaging 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds. 

 “There’s going to be great players making great plays all over the floor,” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said. “From the guard position to the post position, there’s matchups everywhere. Game 5, you probably have a wrinkle here or there, but for the most part, you’re going to have to do what you do. I’m going to have shoot my patented jump shot. Syl is going to have to get in there and bang. Maya is going to have to shoot her three-ball. Those are things we’re going to have get down to the basics.”

 One trend to look for is the team that has led after the first quarter has won each game of this series. 

 “It’s going to come down to defense,” Los Angeles guard and WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard said. “These are two teams that are very capable of doing amazing things offensively. It’s our job and our mindset to make it as hard as possible. I’m sure it’s the same for them. There is no other way to explain it other than this will be a game of intangibles and defense is a part of that.”

 Sit back, relax and enjoy another championship game that is destined to take this already wonderful rivalry to new heights.

The Guru, Mel Greenberg, contributed to this report and will be on the scene in Minneapolis Wednesday night.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

WNBA Finals: The Rematch Opens Featuring A Battle of Recent League MVPs

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

 A legendary constellation of stars has made the dream sequel a reality. 

 From the moment Candace Parker celebrated and hugged Magic Johnson in triumph on the Target Center floor last year after an epic WNBA Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, everybody clamored for a championship rematch. Consider the wish granted.

 Playing throughout the season with all the passion of asphalt simmering in the summer sun, the two best teams meet starting Sunday afternoon from Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota’s campus at 3:30 p.m. on ABC. 

 The second game will be Tuesday at 8 p.m. before the series shifts to Los Angeles for games three and four on Friday and next Sunday. Should a fifth game be needed, it will be played on Wednesday, Oct. 4 in Minnesota. 

 This series features everything. Future Hall of Famers. Great coaches. Fantastic franchises with dispositions to dominate that have been gold standards of excellence. 

 “I think this is exciting for not only us, but for the WNBA,” Parker said after the Lynx beat the Phoenix Mercury last Sunday. “The two best teams throughout the regular season facing off against each other again, back to back years. 

“We know the challenge that lies ahead, we know they’re a fantastic team, they play together, they have a system, coach (Cheryl) Reeve does a good job of putting their players in position to succeed. Obviously our mentality is just to make things hard. They’re going to make tough shots, but we just want to make things tough for them.” 

 The Lynx and Sparks are so evenly matched that it’s hard to find an edge for each driven and determined team.

 Four of the last five winners of the WNBA Most Valuable Players award will be in action: Parker (2013), Maya Moore (2014), Nneka Ogwumike (2016) and Sylvia Fowles (2017). In addition, the winners of the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards in Fowles (2016) and Alana Beard (2017) will be on lockdown patrol.

 After another tremendous WNBA season that featured the Connecticut Sun’s rise after a rough start, Jonquel Jones’ rebounding brilliance and dunk in the All-Star game, epic comebacks, sensational performances, long winning streaks, and career records established by veterans Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, the Lynx and Sparks are competing for the ultimate prize again which is a treat for everybody.

 “It feels great,” Sparks head coach Brian Alger said after the Sparks beat the Phoenix Mercury last week at Talking Stick Arena in the Arizona desert. “This has been one of those years where I really hadn’t thought much about it, just trying to keep our team focused and trying to get better.

 “For the most part, we’ve had some injuries here and there, but we’ve stayed somewhat healthy, which helps us, other teams haven’t been that fortunate. But we know that there’s a lot of good teams in this league, so to be one of the final two standing we feel like we’re worthy of that, but we also feel fortunate to have the opportunity to go play.”

 If it’s anything like last year’s five-game epic series, then get your popcorn ready. For those who forgot, the Sparks edged the Lynx, 77-76, in the fifth game in one of the greatest contests ever played, regardless of sport. The Sparks won the series, 3-2.  

 It took 40 minutes of amazingly breathtaking basketball that featured 24 lead changes, 11 ties, and three lead changes in the final 20 seconds of that decisive game for a determined Parker to add the missing championship piece to her packed portfolio of milestones, accolades, and highlights. It was a timeless thriller and instant classic that went beyond the hype.

 The final basket of the season came in dramatic fashion as Ogwumike grabbed an offensive rebound off a Chelsea Gray miss with five seconds left, put up a shot that was blocked by Fowles, caught the ball off the deflection and put up a second shot as she was falling away from the basket.

 This is the second Finals rematch in the WNBA’s 21-year history and first since the Houston Comets and New York Liberty battled each other in 1999 and 2000. Whatever team wins will match the Comets for most championships in WNBA history with four each. 

 The Sparks are looking to become the first repeat champion, well, since the Sparks did it in 2001 and 2002 with Lisa Leslie leading the way.

 Meanwhile, the Lynx are in the Finals for the sixth time in the last seven years. In the history of sports, the Lynx are the sixth franchise to accomplish that amazing feat. The only other iconic franchises to achieve that are the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers; the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Yankees, and the Cleveland Browns.

 Minnesota has won a WNBA championship in 2011, 2013 and 2015. A Lynx win would also be historic for  center Rebekkah Brunson and put her in a class by herself as the only WNBA player to win five titles. She was a member of the 2005 Sacramento Monarchs championship team.  

 Overall, the red-hot Sparks have won 10 straight games going back to the regular season, the longest win streak of any team heading into the WNBA Finals. 

After missing Lindsay Whalen for a significant portion of the season, the Lynx have found their groove. The Sparks won the regular season series, 2-1. Whalen didn’t play in either of the games that the Sparks won. However, she did play in all five games of last year’s WNBA Finals.

 “Yeah, Whalen is our emotional leader,” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said after the Lynx defeated the Mystics last Sunday at Capital One Arena.

 “I mean, obviously, most of you have been at practices and stuff, when she gets fired up, whether we're in practice or the game, it really changes the momentum of our team, the mentality, how aggressive we become, the intensity.  We always say, when Whalen cusses and spits, you best believe the Lynx are probably about to go on a run or something good is about to happen.”

 With a week to recover and prepare, both teams will be at their best, which is awesome. 

 Two great teams with motivated and focused players. That’s a recipe for something special and a Sparks repeat in five games.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Guru's Musings: The Player Impacting WBB Since 2007? See Her Sunday When the WNBA Finals Tip

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

Many times your Guru is approached with the question, “Who is the greatest women’s basketball player you ever saw?”

As the decades have rolled along in this sport in terms of your Guru’s presence, that has become an increasingly difficult question to answer and single out one individual because of the evolvement of play, athleticism, and other qualities.

Of course, when the question is asked, usually the talent component is what is being asked to consider.

In the early days of the modern era beginning in the 1970s, three stood out, especially under a standard applied by Guru pal Mike Flynn, head of the powerful Blue Star/Philadelphia Belles AAU program here in the area.

“What I look at,” said Flynn, who’s been around even before the arrival of your Guru in this sport, “is who is putting people in the seats.”

This was in the days before the sport jumped from tiny packed gyms for teams like Immaculata into the larger facilities courtesy to the Title IX landmark federal legislation passed in 1972.

The three were Montclair State’s Carol Blazejowski because of her terrific scoring prowess in a time before the three-point shot added to the statistical points accumulation; Old Dominion’s Nancy Lieberman, because of her style honed on the playgrounds of New York City; and Southern Cal’s Cheryl Miller, because of the showtime theatrics she brought to the arena.

After winning an NCAA  title one year, Miler sat on the rim in Pauley Pavilion, the home of arch-rival UCLA, with a bouquet of roses blowing kisses to the crowd.

Observing the antics, UCLA’s Judie Holland, one of the great women’s athletics administrators in history, remarked to yours truly, “Cheryl did the right thing picking them over us (to enroll) because Billie (Moore) would kill her.”

Later on in another era, Philly’s prolific point guard Dawn Staley, now Olympic coach for the next cycle and coach of South Carolina, the NCAA defending champs, caused Magic Johnson to remark during an interview at the WNBA’s 1997 inaugural opener between Los Angeles and New York in L.A., that she was the one player he’d pay to watch.

That remark, by the way, had its own side effect since Staley at the time was playing in the short-lived American Basketball League (ABL).

When all is said and done, it could be that former UConn great Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury might ultimately land the title best of all-time considering her statistical achievements and the fact that she certainly has had the intangible embodiments of Miller, Lieberman and Blazejowski throughout her storied career.

But even with all that said, as the WNBA finals get under way this weekend with a promising repeat explosive series between the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, the Guru is willing to name the one player who has been the most impactful in the sport the past two decades, and perhaps all-time when adding the attention from the electronic media and internet coverage.

That would be one Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, who has been in the eye of the storm of some of the most controversial, also awe-inspiring, also dominating moments and stretches since the 2007.

Why?

Come join the Guru on a walk back through some of those aforementioned events.

2007

The number one story of that calendar year occurred in early summer when it was announced that the top annual national rivalry would be no more between Tennessee and Connecticut, which had been must-see viewing since the two first met in 1995 and many of the matchups involved number one rankings or NCAA championships.

Moore, the top high school prospect that year, who hailed from suburban Atlanta, had committed to UConn, and while no reason was initially given in public why the late legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt decided to nix the series, ultimately what seeped out was Summitt’s displeasure of perceived wrongful recruiting tactics by rival Geno Auriemma in the competition for Moore.

In its own way, though, growth in the women’s college game occurred because as Tennessee/UConn faded to the history subject to some future revival, other rivalries came on the scene as schools like Notre Dame, Duke and Maryland, among others joined Stanford as ongoing residences in the weekly national rankings.

2008-09 to 2009-10

Moore’s sophomore and junior seasons saw the Huskies become the first to to claim back-to-back unbeaten NCAA titles and they went on to break their own previous win-streak record with 90 straight until stopped early in the 2010-11 season at Stanford.

With the nation’s spotlight focused on UConn in that stretch Moore was at the center, though the actual center Tina Charles grabbed national players honors in 2010. Then Moore reclaimed the honors she won as a freshman and sophomore from at least one major organization handing out post season awards when she was a senior.

Of course, that national team win-streak mark has since been broken again, by UConn, riding to 111 straight until the overtime loss at the buzzer last April by Mississippi State in the national semifinals.

Moore’s collegiate career did not have a joyful conclusion, with Connecticut losing to arch old-Big East rival Notre Dame, 72-63, in the national semifinals.

Her freshman season ended up in defeat also, losing to Stanford in the semifinals 82-73 after having beaten the Cardinal in a Thanksgiving tourney in the Caribbean. But between the two meetings, the Huskies suffered two key injuries impacting them in the second Stanford meeting.

Overall, Moore set an NCAA men’s or women’s win record at 150-4. One of those setbacks was a two-point loss at Rutgers in 2011 late in the season.

The Coming of the WNBA Minnesota Lynx Empire

Several seasons before 2011, Minnesota was being touted as one of the latest endangered franchise species at a time shifts and dispersals were becoming part of the territory.

But in 2010 Cheryl Reeve became coach and while her first season ended with a 13-21 record, which we’ll deal with separately in the next item, it led to landing Moore as the overall No. 1 pick.

Unlike other No. 1 picks on teams with previous bad seasons, Moore didn’t have to be the immediate do-it-all to pick the franchise off the ground player. 

The Lynx  already had Lindsay Whalen through a trade with the Connecticut Sun, veteran Seimone Augustus,  the former overall No. 1 pick; and Rebekkah Brunson, who was surprisingly available to Reeve when the former Sacramento Monarchs were dispersed.

So weening her way in as a pro, Moore was able to quickly develop with less pressure and by the end of the season, she became rookie of the year and the Lynx had their first championship.

Now when Sunday’s action begins at the University of Minnesota, Moore and the Lynx are in their sixth final in seven years, which might have been 7-for-7 had the new format been in place backin 2014, which means they wouldn’t have had to play the super Phoenix team.

And while the Lynx have picked up three titles in the Moore era, a bounce here and there in last season’s final and a fourth trophhy could already be in possession.

Along the way, there have also been two USA Olympic Gold medals and a slew of in-season and post-season honors.

In fact, former president Obama gave creedence in his own way to our claim here in 2014, joking during the Lynx White House visit after the  2013 title, citing Moore's numerous trips to D.C. with her alma mater, the USA Olympians and Minnesota by saying, "Basically, there’s like a Maya Moore wing in the White House," Obama quipped. "When she comes, we’ve got all her stuff here. She’s got a toothbrush."

These days it’s easy to lose sight of Moore because of the large array of talent on both the Lynx (Sylvia Fowles came aboard in 2015) and league overall.

But when looks for common denominator and impact player at the center of all these events, that is the case for Maya Moore besides the obvious talent component.

Moore Could Have Been a Spark

When Minnesota and Los Angeles tip off Sunday in a repeat best-of-five finals from last year, but not for fate and Tina Thompson, then Moore could easily be playing for Los Angeles.

Here’s the deal.

Mark August 12, 2010 as the greatest event in Minnesota Lynx history, not counting the actual draft day of Moore, the deal to gain Whalen, or the acquisition of Fowles, and, obviously, the titles.

It had been a season of injury and narrow losses in Cheryl Reeve’s initial summer but the bottom of the West was awful and Los Angeles, with Lisa Leslie retired after 2009 and Candace Parker lost along the way with a season-ending shoulder injury, had an uncharacteristically poor record.

It was also the summer of the so-named Maya Moore draft (2011), just as a year ago was the Breanna Stewart draft, so the bottom of the standings drew as much focus as the top.

On August 12, Los Angeles came to Minnesota where a crowd of over 7,000 showed up despite the mediocrity of both teams.

Though several games were left, projection indicated this particular contest could be the matchup to send the winner ultimately to the playoffs and the loser into the Maya Moore lottery.

And so with about four seconds left in regulation Minnesota went in front and at that moment, Reeve, being the competitor she is, draft be damned, playoffs or bust baby.

But after a time out with a little over a second left, Tina Thompson, the former Houston Comets great procured the previous season when Parker was off due to pregnancy, launched a nearly mid-length of court missile and “clang!” into the hoop and the Sparks had a 78-77 victory.

“I stood there and thought, `What else could go wrong,’” Reeve recalled this past Sunday with a smile in Washington after the Lynx had swept the Mystics 3-0 to head back to the finals again.

But in truth, the seemingly disheartening loss started making things go right for Minnesota.

The win clinched the season series for the Sparks and on the final day both teams finished 13-21, with Los Angeles heading to the playoffs, but to get swept in the first round 3-0 by the ultimate champion Seattle Storm, whose coach Brian Agler is now running the Sparks.

Minnesota went into the lottery and though being second in the ping pong ball odds drawing behind the former Tulsa Shock, the Lynx won the No. 1 pick.

And the rest is, well, you know.

Speaking of Winning

While all this has been about Minnesota, if Los Angeles wins again, someone better start giving Agler serious consideration for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

 Consider two titles with the former Columbus Quest of the former American Basketball League, two with the Seattle Storm and now he would have two with Los Angeles along with a bunch of wins in general in the resume.

Another guy to consider is former Western Kentucky and Nebraska coach Paul Sanderford.

In an ironic twist, on Sanderford’s facebook page over the weekend, he noted he and his son were doing the baseball stadium thing.
But they happened to be at Nationals Stadium in Washington the same moment Minnesota and Washington were playing their WNBA playoff semifinal in the nearby renamed Capital One Arena.

The Future Is Bright For The WNBA Vanquished

Once the tears resulting from the realization of an end of a season dried Sunday in Washington following the Mystics' loss to Minnesota in the semifinals, there was talk of excitment for next year when hopefully the roster is back to better health.

Likewise for the Connecticut Sun, which Tuesday announced an extended contract for Coach/General Manager Curt Miller through 2021.

Other teams such as Dallas and Seattle, bounced in the first round, should gain through a fruitful overall WNBA draft in April besides the usual additions and subtractions from trades and free agency.

New York may have to add an offensive component to go with one of the league's tougher defensive units.

And Seattle and Atlanta have coaching vacancies to fill.

But for now, there's one more production left which could have has many as five exciting acts as last season's best-of-five finals.

It all begins Sunday.

And that’s it for now. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

WNBA Playoffs: Offseason Washington Wheeling and Dealing Leads to Rally and Upset of New York

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

NEW YORK – The electoral votes for the inaugural WNBA Basketball Executive Year, determined by one front office executive from each of the 12 league franchises, went to the Connecticut Sun’s Curt Miller, who also took coach of the year Sunday afternoon in two of several postseason honors announced by the league.

But by the time nightfall arrived here outside Madison Square Garden, there were two human statistics seated alongside Washington Mystics coach-general manager Mike Thibault, the runner up in the league vote, to indicate what the popular vote might be if the fanbase were allowed their say.

Thibault nodded in the direction of former Maryland star Kristi Toliver, who helped the Los Angeles Sparks snap a WNBA title drought last year, and to former Delaware star Elena Delle Donne, who had turned the Chicago Sky into a perennial playoff team.

“I think to win at this level, to win big games, you have to have several players – we’ve got two of them right here – who don’t mind taking pressure shots.

“You can’t be shy about the situation and I think that speaks to their level of play, and is certainly why I spent most of the winter trying to figure a way to get them. The credit is all theirs for coming out and believing what we’re doing.”

 Toliver has a place in collegiate lore for hitting the three-ball at the buzzer in regulation that sent Maryland to their only NCAA women’s crown in 2006 in Boston when the Terrapins prevailed in overtime against Duke in what was at the time an all-Atlantic Coast Conference title.

On Sunday, she had a legendary pro game hitting a playoffs record nine treys and finishing with 32 points to fuel a rally from an early 14-point deficit to a 20-point lead by the sixth-seeded Mystics before settling at 82-68 over the third-seeded New York Liberty in round two of the postseason.

Delle Donne finished with 18 points, switching roles and becoming the second banana to Toliver in Sunday’s off-Broadway production.

The upset earlier in the day in terms of seed when No. 5 Phoenix ended No. 4 Connecticut’s Cinderella season coupled with Washington’s upset of New York caused a re-seed flip into the semifinals so No. 1 Minnesota, which had a double bye, will open a best-of-five semifinals Tuesday night hosting the Mystics while second-seeded Los Angeles, also coming off a double bye, will host Phoenix.  

Thibault just shrugged his shoulders and smiled when the irony of the outcome of the new WNBA executive award was noted to him knowing he couldn’t call on his Congressional neighbors in Washington for a federal investigation since they already have their hands full dealing with another election of note.

New York, which had a first-round bye, came into the game as the third seed for the second straight year under the revised playoff format begun in 2016 allowing the best eight teams without regard to division conference affiliation to compete in the postseason.

But with the first two rounds being one-and-done affairs, once again Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer and his players also had to re-discuss what happened, not to be confused with a book coming out Tuesday with the same words, “What Happened,” by the runnerup in that other election.

Besides admitting Toliver made Laimbeer’s worst nightmare come true, he explained, “The biggest component of this game was the rebounding. They dominated the rebounding against us, 14-3, on the offensive boards, but another big, glaring statistic that no one pays attention to was team rebounds was 14-2.

“Which means all of the loose balls that went out of bounds are a rebound went their way. They took it to us on the rebounding. We knew that was as big key and we didn’t get it done. So when we shoot 45- to 39 against their team, we should be right there to win a game but the rebounding and the turnovers (15-6) were the big disparity and they got 20 more shots against us.

“That was the really the deciding factor. That’s not us. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we hang our hat and when that happens to us we deserve to get spanked and that’s what happened.”

Krystal Thomas also scored in double figures for Washington with 11 points, Delle Donne also had 10 rebounds, and Thibault saluted the work of starter Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Tianna Hawkins. Former Saint Joseph’s star Natasha Cloud was also her usual defensive self.

 Tina Charles, one of the superstars of the league who played for Thibault when both were with the Connecticut Sun, had 18 points, while Bria Hartley had 15 points and Epiphanny Prince scored 12.

“You don’t get lucky around this time,” Charles said, taking her turn explaining what happened after the Liberty came up short again. “You want to have the defensive rebounds – that’s usually our staple. I believe we’re #1 in the WNBA for that. But, come playoffs, it’s a different ball game. Krystal Thomas – they did great on the rebounding end.”

In Washington’s opener last Wednesday at home the Mystics had 20 offensive rebounds in the win over the Dallas Wings, formerly the Tulsa franchise and before that the three-time WNBA champion Detroit Shock, which was coached by Laimbeer.

Comparing last year’s exit. Charles said of this year’s season-ender, “These past 10 games, we were on a rise. We were feeling very confident in our play, feeling very good going into today’s game, know that the last time we played against Washington, we played against them really well.

“What makes them great because they’re focusing on the detail of what it really takes to win.”

Playoff Schedule

The semifinals will open Tuesday, with Washington at Minnesota, 8 p.m., EST, while Phoenix is at Los Angeles, 10 p.m., EST, both games on ESPN2.

Game two in each series is Thursday with the game From Minneapolis at 8 p.m.and the game from Los Angeles at 10 p.m., also on ESPN 2.

On Sunday, the Minnesota-Washington series moves to the nation’s capital in the renamed Capitol One Arena at 3 p.m., EST on ESPN while the Los Angeles-Phoenix series moves to the desert in Arizona at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN.

The sites stay the same for potential Games No. 4 on Tuesday, Sept. 19, times to be determined, but games to be played will air on ESPN 2. 

Decisive Games No. 5, if necessary, will air on ESPN2, times to be determined and played back in Minnesota and Los Angeles.


 

WNBA Playoff Notes: Getting a Schooling From New York Helped Educate Washington

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

NEW YORK – When New York and Washington last met in the regular season here on August 25, the Liberty fell 74-66, Elena Delle Donne’s first night back from being sidelined for several weeks with a broken hand, the next night they returned home to host the Dallas Wings.

Another loss occurred then also and in all Washington won only two of its last eight. The loss here sent Washington behind New York in the fight for third seed and ultimately the Mystics fell to sixth, still good enough to to be a host, though the first-round bye became a casualty.

Nevertheless while Washington seemed on the way to an early exit, the Mystics had already clinched a playoff berth and the night after the loss here, down in D.C., assistant coach Marianne Stanley, a former Immaculata star, seemed upbeat.

“We learned a lot last night,” she said of the loss to New York, also knowing Delle Donne wasn’t ready to play 100 percent. “Look once you’re in the playoffs, it’s all about where are you and who are you playing and let’s get ready because it’s one-and-done in the first couple of rounds.

So Sunday night, Stanley was asked about what was in her head that night and what was the effect on the win over New York.

“After every game you look at film and how you performed and we knew we weren’t at our best last time up here. Elena was just back. You learn in this game to not let stuff linger. You learn from it and you move on,” Stanley said.

“You move on to the next game. And I give our players a lot of credit because they focused on the things we asked them to focus on, the things they needed to improve, and to put their attention on. You can’t pay attention to 30 different things.

“You figure out the things you need to do in order to win and our guys did a great job following that game plan and just sticking to it. It’s clear and obvious, some of the things we were concerned about from before were necessary to change and we did and the result was way different,” she said.

“We didn’t expect that (the 34-point turnaround during Sunday's game), I don’t think, but the result was way different. It’s a lot like the NCAA tournament. Even if you have ten losses. If you’re playing well at the time, and you got good chemistry and playing hard, that’s all you care about.”

 Stanley and the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud out of Saint Joseph's give Washington two individuals with Philadelphia ties, while Minnesota features coach Cheryl Reeve, the former La Salle star out of South Jersey who has won three WNBA titles the past six years and nearly made it a fourth.

Reeve was an assistant to UConn's Geno Auriemma on the USA World Champion and 2016 Olympic squads and is a strong favorite to be an aide to Dawn Staley, who she coached as an assistant with the former Charlotte Sting.

Early Knockouts

With the quick demise of Dallas, which has former Notre Dame star Skylar Diggins-Smith, in the first round, and Phoenix dispatching Seattle, and then in round two the departures of Connecticut and New York have fans and media bemoaning the lack of best-of-three formats like the old days.

The previous format, in which the top four in each division made the field, the first and second round, both within the division, were best-of-three and then on to the best-of-five finals.

One reason for short openers that has been given comes from agents who worry about too long a postseason holding up players from their offseason overseas commitments, where they make the big bucks.

Some people like the drama of the new setup in the early rounds while others are not happy with the quick exit.

Laimbeer, whose team has been sent packing two straight years cancelling what had been excellent regular season play, said after Sunday’s game:

“That’s the nature of this format. You can have one bad game, or you can have a player like Toliver go off and shoot you out of it or some bad calls and you’re out,” he said. “But everybody has the same situation.

“It’s not just unique to the New York Liberty. That’s the way the format is and we have to take advantage of it and today we just didn’t do that.”

Charles doesn’t ascribe to the concept that Washington got its juices flowing against Dallas while the Liberty sat around all week with the bye.

“Look at Minnesota and Los Angeles, who had the double bye and a lot of rest last year and they got to the finals so they certainly weren’t affected by it,” she said.

Feeling a Lucky Draft

The pecking order for the lottery picks in next April’s draft will be announced at halftime of Semifinals Game 2 of the Minnesota-Washington series on Thursday.

The four teams who did not make the playoffs are San Antonio, which had the worst record and last April took Washington’s Kelsey Plum as the overall No. 1 pick, the Chicago Sky, the Atlanta Dream, and, for the first time in 13 seasons, the Indiana Fever.

But in a recent trade, Chicago got Atlanta’s first round pick, which became part of the deal and in it becoming a lottery selection, the Sky have two early picks.

 

  

WNBA Viewpoint:Toliver's One-Woman Show Fuels Washington Rally Over New York To The Semifinals

By ROB KNOX
@knoxrob1
 
OMG. Kristi Toliver. Wow. 
 
Toliver found the zone, never left it, and because of it the Washington Mystic’s magical playoff ride continues following an 82-68 victory over the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon.
 
Toliver’s ridiculous 32-point performance and WNBA-playoff record nine 3-pointers were a spectacle that reduced the Liberty to unwilling spectators. She went berserk on Broadway. It was epic, ridiculous, amazing, special, and left everybody in awe. 
 
“I’ve never witnessed something like that, but to be on court and be on the right side of it was unreal,” Washington’s Elena Delle Donne said. “We just rode her weight today. She was unconscious. But that’s her - I grew up watching her. 

“That was her in the national championship game,” Delle Donne said of the former Maryland star whose three-pointer in regulation at the buzzer in Boston sent the Terrapins into overtime against then-arch-rival Duke when the Terrapins prevailed in the all-Atlantic Coast Conference final for their first NCAA title in 2006. 

“When she’s going off like that, we just do all the little things and let her go...offensively, she took over. We have such great players - we have two dogs in Krystal (Thomas) and Tierra (Ruffin-Pratt). We even said, ‘We follow your lead and your grit’, so they absolutely changed the tone of the game in that way, and she took over the rest.”
 
The sixth-seeded Mystics (20-16 overall) begin the best-of-five semifinals Tuesday against the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx (27-7). That contest along with Thursday’s second one will be played at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena. The Mystics will host the third game at the Capital One Arena Sunday at 3 p.m.
 
The fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury (20-16) and second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks (26-8) will meet in the other semifinal series. In winning Sunday, the Mercury and Mystics overcame first-half double-digit deficits.
 
Prior to her Fourth-of-July-like fireworks explosion, Toliver had made 10 3-pointers over the Mystics last six games. She was 1-for-9 from 3-point distance in the Mystics’ first round win over the Dallas Wings last Wednesday. 
 
The basket looked as big as the Hudson River especially in the third quarter when Toliver outscored the Liberty, 15-10. She made five 3-pointers in the decisive period.
 
“That was my biggest fear going into this game, (Kristi) Toliver making the ungodly shots that she does every now-and- then,” New York head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We were in her space for a vast majority of those. She played great. She made all the big shots. 

“Any opening that she had, she released it quickly before we can get a hand on the ball and they went in. Great players do that and she was one of the big differences in the game but not the only one.”
 
Toliver’s effort resembled Reggie Miller’s fourth quarter in the game five of the 1994 Eastern Finals when he detonated for 25 points. Only people missing were Spike Lee and Marv Albert.
 
The Mystics’ offseason moves have paid dividends in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Delle Donne scored 24 points in the win over the Wings. Toliver, who helped the Sparks win the WNBA title last season, was the difference as her unconscious shooting ended the Liberty’s 10-game winning streak.
 
Delle Donne and Toliver are reasons why the Mystics can win a championship. 

They are game-changing talents who play with tremendous heart, tenacity and poise. It will be a challenge to face the Lynx and deal with their multitude of weapons in MVP candidate Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and the list goes on.
 
“The greatest thing about Kristi is that, as a general rule, you can miss shots early and that doesn’t change her mindset,” Washington head coach Mike Thibault said postgame. “I think that to win at this level, to win big games, you have to have several players – we’ve got two of them right here - who don’t mind taking pressure shots. 

“You can’t be shy about the situation and I think that speaks to their level of play, and is certainly why I spent most of the winter trying to figure out a way to get them. The credit is all theirs for coming out and believing in what we’re doing.”
 
The Mystics have also benefitted from the return of guard Natasha Cloud. The Saint Joseph’s graduate has solidified the Mystics defense and against the Liberty, she was a major nuisance. 

Teaming with Ruffin-Pratt, who had nine rebounds and made some big shots in the win over the Wings, and Thomas, the Mystics are formidable.
 
Washington has faced its share of adversity this season.
 
I was there in Indiana when Tayler Hill’s season ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Mystics’ locker room postgame resembled a morgue as players spoke in hushed tones despite a blowout victory. 

They absorbed a 30-point beating at Madison Square Garden in July, lost Delle Donne for most of August, and dropped four of their last five games entering the playoffs.
 
Yet, the Mystics are still playing and one of four teams with an opportunity to win a championship.  
 
The regular season means nothing. Washington lost all three games against the Lynx this season, but many games have been competitive throughout.
 
For example, this was the first time Minnesota swept a season series with Washington since 2014.

 Minnesota won the three games the season by an average of 18.6 points per game. The Lynx outscored Washington 48-16 in the paint in the last matchup on Sept. 3. Minnesota has now outscored its opponents in the paint in 17 out of its last 19 contests.
 
In averaging 13.6 points per game against the Lynx this season, Toliver had 20 points in last week’s regular season finale against the Lynx.
 
“For us, it’s been crazy because the second we started getting momentum together, I hurt my thumb,” Delle Donne said. “But she’s such a knowledgeable player - and at times she’s quiet - but this is a whole new her. This is playoffs her. We call her ‘panda’, so this is ‘Playoff Panda.’ She’s such a great leader and such a knowledgeable player that I feel like just being on the court with her, I’ve learned so much. 

“We’re still learning one another games. I’m starting to know what she likes, she knows what I like and we get each other in those right spots.

“We just have fun playing together. It’s a blast. She’s unreal. To be on court with someone of that caliber but also with that leadership and that knowledge - it makes things easy for us.”
 
Especially when she’s shooting lights out like Sunday.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Hall of Fame Weekend: Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw Enhanced Thru the Guru's Cut

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Having been re-called to active duty on behalf of the employee alma mater Philadelphia Inquirer for coverage of philly’s Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, who starred at Saint Joseph’s in the mid-1970s, into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, your Guru began collecting information thru an advance jump start with interviews, etc., to save time and the process was initiated prior to knowing what the assigned size specs would be.

Once known, the Guru then had to write from what he had collected to comply with the terms.

But through the wonders of the internet and technology, beyond the finished product which you were given a link into philly.com, the umbrella website, some nice things were said that did not make the cut.

Rather at this late hour than craft a whole new version, as an extra treat, since they were transcribed in advance to become hard copy, here are more quotes and remarks celebrating Muffet’s induction.

While in New York last weekend for the Liberty’s final WNBA game of the regular season, facing the San Antonio Silver Stars, first here is what former Irish stars Kayla McBride, who plays for the Texans, and Ruth Riley, now the San Antonio general manager, had to say.

By the way, as part two of the Inky detail, the Guru will be covering Muffet’s speech Friday night.

Kayla McBride --  Notre Dame wasn’t on my radar at all. They sent me a letter and my parents said, “You should go. I actually fell in love with Digger. Then I fell in love with Coach McGraw. She didn’t ask me about basketball.

She asked me about me. She’s probably top two, top three most important people in my life at this point. She has always instilled so much confidence in me, no matter how immature I was (laugh), no matter, anything, I give her so much credit for me being the person and player I am today.

Her honesty is No. 1. She expects and demands a lot from her players and she’s not afraid to let you know good or bad. Her compassion off the court is amazing. Just her competitiveness. I think she’s our leader for a reason.

She’s a great leader. It’s easy to follow her and its easy to play hard for her just the way she coaches.

* * *

Ruth Riley -- Coach McGraw instantly made me feel welcome, make me feel it was going to be a place that I was cared for as an individual but was going to reach my potential as a young woman and as a basketball player and I think she’s very authentic, she’s very honest, in games and recruiting you can get that but I really feel appreciate just the way she approaches life. What you see is what you get.

We’re looking forward to the weekend. She doesn’t allow us to celebrate her much so this is going to be special.

*  *  *
The fuller quotes from Jim Foster, now at Tennessee-Chattanooga, who hired Muffet to be an assistant after Geno Auriemma had moved on to another slot from Saint Josephs.

Competitive. Driven. Had a real understanding at an early age a lot of what makes a successful coach and the experiences she had turned her into a better coach. She learned how to grow with the game and wasn’t status quo and didn’t stay satisfied with what was and was always looking to what else do we do. Who else can I be. 

She had that at the beginning. I think to sustain this thing for a long period of time you have to have that mentality and then you continue with that mentality. A lot of people get to a point where they think know enough and are just satisfied with where they are and she just always was looking for something else.

Theresa Grentz, who was McGraw’s second coach at St. Joseph's following Ellen Ryan and before Rene Portland: 

It was a great time. Muffet and her teammates were young and a joy to be around.
Muffet was very competitive as were her teammates. 

Muff wore number 10 and played with super passion for a game she loved.

It is so wonderful to see her success and all she has done for so many young women that have come under her tutorage.

Congratulations Muffet, you deserve this and you have earned this great honor. So proud of you!!

And from Muffet herself in a call a few days ahead to avoid the crush that was going to occur at the media availability session Thursday afternoon at the Hall.

McGraw: Just after graduating and knowing that I loved the game and I was a sociology major and a job opened at Archbishop Carroll and I thought what a great way to see if I like it or not. 

In terms of taking the job at Notre Dame, she said, “Back then you actually sent your resume in and waited to hear from them. When they called, I was really excited to take a trip out there. Matt always went recruiting with me and I said, ‘Hey we have to take another trip’ and he probably thought we were going to North Jersey to go recruiting and found out we were going to South Bend.

We were both very excited trying to find information. It wasn’t easy back then because you didn’t go online. You actually had to know somebody or look it up in a different way. We were a little unprepared going in. But we got there. David Rivers, I think was the first guy I ran into on campus.

Karen Robinson was already there. She was a great player. I didn’t recruit her but she was a freshman when I got there. (Robinson and her husband were later to endow the Notre Dame women’s coaching position, donating over $1 million.)

 Then Beth Morgan (now on her staff after having been the head coach of VCU), and Katrina Gaither were the two that elevated the program to a Final Four level. Joining the Big East conference was a part of that too.

Best part was playing Villanova to get homecoming trips. (After Notre Dame's leaving the old Big East, she has arranged games with St. Joes and Penn to get trips. This year will play Quakers at Palestra on Dec. 9.)

Got to get back to palestra. That was a hell of game. They played us tough. (About the first meeting with Penn several years ago.)

Beth’s senior year. She got us there. Sellouts. Skylar Diggins-Smith in back yard.

In an ironic twist, in late December, 1990 McGraw brought her Irish to her alma mater in a holiday tournament where they upset Louisiana Tech and the Hawks. 

The success brought Notre Dame’s first ranking in the AP poll and from there the Irish are now one of the all-time teams in terms of appearances overall, besides in the Top 10 and Top 5 categories, as well as consecutive rankings.

That’s it. 








WNBA Playoffs: Round Two Storylines Feature Cinderellas and Heavies

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)
 
The postseason fun continues for the Washington Mystics and battled-tested Phoenix Mercury. 
 
After winning elimination games at home Wednesday night, the Mystics and Mercury hit the road looking to extend their respective seasons. 
 
The Mystics beat the Dallas Wings, 86-76 and the Mercury clipped the Seattle Storm, 79-69 in the first round. 

Phoenix has enjoyed the new playoff format the WNBA implemented last season. The Mercury are 3-0 in single-elimination games and knocked out New York, also the third seed, a year ago in the second round.
 
The fifth-seeded Mercury (19-16) travel to the fourth-seeded Connecticut Sun (21-13) in the opener of a semifinal doubleheader on ESPN2 starting at 3 p.m. 

The Sun won both games against the Mercury played at the Mohegan Sun Arena. 
 
However, the Mercury won the latest matchup last Friday, 86-66 behind 31 points from Brittney Griner. This will be the first all-time playoff meeting between the Mercury and Sun.
 
The nightcap features familiar foes in the sixth-seeded Mystics (19-16) and the third-seeded New York Liberty (22-12) at 5 p.m.

The Mystics lost both games at Madison Square Garden this season. New York is 6-2 all-time against Washington in the WNBA Playoffs.
 
In the first game, an 85-55 beatdown on July 16, the Mystics played without Elena Delle Donne and Tayler Hill. In the second game, a 74-66 Liberty win on Aug. 25, Delle Donne played her first game after missing close to four weeks with a thumb injury.
 
The winners advance to the WNBA semifinals that begin Tuesday in Los Angeles and Minnesota. 
 
The Liberty-Mystics game features former MVP winners in Delle Donne (2015) and Liberty center Tina Charles (2012). 

New York won its last 10 games of the regular season as Charles earned Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors and Bill Laimbeer was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for Aug. 1-Sept. 3.
 
The Liberty are in the midst of one of the most successful stretches in franchise history, having clinched a third-straight postseason berth. 

New York’s franchise record tying 10-game winning streak is the most consecutive victories a team has ever had to conclude a WNBA regular season.
 
Having won at least 20 regular season games in 3-consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history, New York has won 66 games and compiled a .647 winning percentage over that span. 

Charles posted another MVP caliber season, ranking third in the WNBA averaging 19.7 points per game. 
 
New York once again led the league in defensive field goal percentage, becoming the first franchise in league history to do so in 3-consecutive campaigns (2015-17). 

The Liberty will be trying to purge memories of last season’s setback to Phoenix in this round of the playoffs.
 
In advancing in a playoff round for the first time since 2002, Washington tied an all-time franchise record and set a team playoff record with 52 rebounds in its win over Dallas. 

The Mystics’ 20 offensive rebounds set a new franchise playoff high. The Mystics capitalized on those rebounds, outscoring the Wings 25-15 on second-chance points.
 
The Mystics also established a new franchise playoff record with eight blocked shots.
 
Delle Donne scored a team-high 25 points, one shy of the franchise playoff record, and tied a playoff-career-high with 11 rebounds. The former Delaware star has scored at least 24 points in four of her last five games. 
 
Center Krystal Thomas set a new Mystics playoff record with 17 total rebounds. 

Forward Emma Meesseman notched her second double-double of the season (16 points, 10 rebounds). The Mystics also received a boost from guard Natasha Cloud returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a hip injury against Phoenix on Aug. 18, grabbing three rebounds and blocking a shot in 11 minutes.
 
“I want this team to have fun and know what it feels like to make a run and play as hard as you can and see what happens,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver said following the win over the Wings. “Because when it’s playoff time anything can happen. Anybody can beat anyone in this league on any given day and I think we proved that today and I don’t think very many people chose us to win but I think that we’re coming along and that we’re believing in the system  and we’re believing in one another and if we keep doing that anything is possible.”
 
Meanwhile, the Mercury-Sun game will be highlighted by a frontcourt matchup between Griner and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones – the WNBA’s 2017 Peak Performer Award winners for scoring and rebounding, respectively. 
 
Alyssa Thomas and Candace Parker are the only two players in the WNBA who average over 14 points, four assists and six rebounds: Parker (17.1, 4.3, 8.4) and Thomas (14.9, 4.7, 6.8). Connecticut’s other all-star Jasmine Thomas was strong this season as she averaged 14.2 points per game. Courtney Williams is also a double-digit scorer for the Sun, chipping in 12.3 points per contest.
 
For the Mercury, Griner averaged a career-high 21.9 points to earn her first scoring title, while Jones set WNBA single-season records with 11.9 rebounds per game and 403 total boards. 
 
She was large and in charge against the Storm, scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking three shots in 40 entertaining minutes. It was Griner’s fifth career double-double. The Mercury are perfect when Griner records a postseason double-double.
 
Also in the win over Seattle, guard Leilani Mitchell was phenomenal as she scored a career best 17 points on 4-of- 9 shooting. In addition to making 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, Mitchell also added four rebounds, three assists, one steal and one blocked shots.
 
Sunday’s game also features Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who surpassed 1,000 career playoff points against the Storm after scoring 14 including a dagger 3-pointer late in the game. The former UConn great with 1,009 points in the playoffs ranks second all-time in postseason scoring behind Tamika Catchings (1,141).
 
The Mercury won their 17th postseason series in their 21-year history. 


This moves them ahead of the Los Angeles Sparks (16) for the most series wins in WNBA history. It was also the Mercury’s 35th playoff victory in franchise history.
 
The Mercury played its opening playoff game at Arizona State University. Though Taurasi was in foul trouble during the first half of that contest, she was her usual diplomatic self on playing at Wells Fargo Arena.
 
“I think we’ve just been in a position that we’ve played so much basketball: the hoop is still 10 feet high, it’s still a basketball,” Taurasi said. “I have to say our fans were pretty incredible today to come out, and it felt like a home court, it did. ASU did a great job of helping us out, our staff does I think the best job of putting people in the stands and making sure they’re out there
supporting us. It felt good actually.”

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

WNBA Playoffs: Dallas Tough Opening Hurdle For Washington Looking to Return to Winning Form

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)
 
WASHINGTON - It doesn’t get much better than watching Skylar Diggins-Smith and Elena Delle Donne go head-to-head in a winner-take-all playoff game.
 
The stars will be out in force Wednesday night when the seventh-seeded Dallas Wings (16-18 overall) visit the sixth-seeded Washington Mystics (18-16) in a first-round playoff game at the newly renamed Capital One Arena.

 Tip is scheduled for 8 p.m.and will be the opener of an exciting ESPN2 doubleheader. 
 
The nightcap features the eighth-seeded Seattle Storm (15-19) visiting the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury (18-16) at 10 p.m. That game featuring the league’s top two scorers in Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart will be played at Arizona State University’s Wells Fargo Arena.
 
For Diggins-Smith, this will be the first playoff game of her career. 

She was injured when Tulsa was swept by Phoenix in two games in 2015. The gifted fifth-year guard is fully recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered that season. In helping Dallas reach the playoffs for the first time, Diggins-Smith was an infernal force that relentlessly attacked with merciless fury.
 
It’s always a great day when one of the best players in the world gets an opportunity to showcase her talents under the white-hot postseason lights. 

Diggins-Smith has been consistently brilliant throughout the season while leading a young Dallas Wing squad. For the Wings, this is the second playoff appearance in franchise history since leaving Detroit after the 2009 season.
 
In averaging 18.5 points per game, Diggins-Smith scored at least 20 points 15 times this season. She had a scintillating stretch of six consecutive games in which she scored 20 or more points. She finished the season ranked fourth in assists per game (5.8). 

Late in the season, Diggins-Smith sank seven 3-pointers in a win over San Antonio and dropped 28 last week against Chicago.
 
In three games this season against the Mystics, Diggins-Smith averaged 20.6 points per game. Dallas won both games played in Washington including 83-78 on Aug. 26. Delle Donne had 29 points and 11 rebounds in that setback.
 
Speaking of Delle Donne, this will be her 15th career playoff game. She has averaged 17.4 points in her previous 14 games all with the Chicago Sky. 
 
She also delivered one of the most memorable moments in playoff history in 2014. 

Playing in an elimination game on the road against the Atlanta Dream, Delle Donne scored 17 of her 34 points in the final period, including the winning jumper with 8.4 seconds left, as the Sky rallied from 20 points down to win, 81-80.
 
The Sky advanced to the Finals where they were swept by Phoenix. Delle Donne arrived in Washington for moments like this. Although the Mystics wobbled into the playoffs, losing four of their last five games, Delle Donne, the No. 2 pick in the much hyped 2013 draft class, can carry a franchise.
 
She scored 37 points last week in an exciting overtime win that officially clinched a playoff spot for the Mystics.

 The journey to this point has been bumpy, but it doesn’t matter now. Despite a season ending injury to Tayler Hill along with other key injuries, the Mystics are confident they can continue advancing and play deep into September. 
 
Overall, the Mystics have the edge in playoff experience. 

Guard Kristi Toliver has played in 23 postseason contests and helped the Los Angeles Sparks win a title last season. 

Dallas’ Karima Christmas-Kelly has participated in 14 playoff games where she’s averaged 7.4 points per contest. 
 
The winner of this game will have to wait a couple hours to learn whether they will head to third-seeded New York or fourth-seeded Connecticut Sunday.

 The outcome of the Mercury-Storm will determine the pairings for the second round. Top-seeded Minnesota and second-seeded Los Angeles, the reigning WNBA champions, earned double byes to the best-of-three semifinals.