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.

Friday, October 21, 2016

WNBA Finals: The Last Laugh and Last Shot Spurred Los Angeles Over Minnesota

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

Also for Blue Star Media

MINNEAPOLIS – Candace Parker got the last laugh and Nneka Ogwumike got the last word and the WNBA could not have hoped for anything better to top a magnificent decisive Game 5 here at the Target Center that wrapped up the league’s celebratory 20th anniversary season.

A roaring but disappointed sellout crowd of 19,423 saw their hometown defending champion Minnesota Lynx succumb to the Los Angeles Sparks Thursday night when league MVP Ogwumike put back a shot with 2.1 seconds left in regulation to give the folks from Tinseltown a 77-76 victory and their first WNBA crown since 2002 and third overall.

It was history made and history denied and a bunch of her-stories among the rosters of both squads.

Had Ogwumike been stopped the Lynx would have won the first back-to-back repeat crowns since the Sparks achieved the feat in 2001 and 2002 and off their recent domination they would have won their fourth to tie the long defunct Houston Comets, who won their quartet in the first four seasons of the league’s existence.

And former Georgetown star Rebekah Brunson would have won her fifth title – becoming the only player in the WNBA two-decades existence to do that with what would have been the fourth here and another with the defunct Sacramento Monarchs.

But it was not to be. Instead, L.A. Coach Brian Angler, who has the most North American women’s basketball wins in the United States, was the historic beneficiary of Ogumike’s putback to to win his fourth title in two leagues beginning with the two achieved in the short-lived American Basketball League (ABL) in 1997 and 1998 by the Columbus Quest before the league’s demise under bankruptcy early in its third season.

Then in 2010 Agler led a dominating Seattle Storm bunch to a title and now in his second Los Angeles season the graduate of Wittenberg and former Missouri-Kansas City women’s coach gained his third.

To do so, he had to quickly rebuild Los Angeles’ morale after a tough loss at home Sunday night in the Staples Center that allowed the Lynx to extend the series back to here.

The last laugh went to Parker, the former Tennessee super star who won NCAA crowns in 2007 and 2008, went first overall in the 2009 draft as a lottery pick, was denied a return slot on this past summer’s USA gold-medal winning Olympic squad, and was dazzling Thursday night with 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Her MVP finals honor came after a personal tough time in late June, aside from the Olympic snub,  when her iconic Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down after the 2012 season, succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Parker saluted Summitt with remarks after the game and spoke of her spirit guiding her to rebound against the physically built and veteran Lynx contingent.

Rob has the focus under this post on the blog.

Ogwumike, the former Stanford star, had 12 points while former Duke star Chelsea Gray, formerly with the Connecticut Sun, off the bench had 11  straight points across the end of the third and early in the fourth quarter to keep the Sparks from drifting further behind Minnesota.

The stats on the Minnesota side of the ball show Maya Moore, the esteemed standout from Connecticut, with 23 points and had the Lynx prevailed, she would have been the MVP. Instead her current run at glory that included a spot on the Olympic squad with Minnesota teammates Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen, and Seimone Augustus, ended the way her junior and senior UConn seasons ended with the Huskies in the final excruciating seconds against then-Big East rival Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals.

Fowles finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, Augustus had 17, and Whalen had 10 but missed the final long-range attempt beyond half-court that would have preserved the now-stalled Minnesota dynasty.

Incidentally, Los Angeles had no one on this past summer gold medal group in Brazil.

As for the WNBA, the league struck its own gold that as a result of a revamped playoff format that allowed the best eight regardless of East-West conference affiliations into the postseason and had the two best teams of the regular season reach the final best-of-five round and produce a scintillating matchup.

Los Angeles struck in Game 1 here with a buzzer-beater by Alana Beard, another with her own story, while Minnesota countered with a blowout in Game 2.

Then the Sparks blazed at one of their two homes Friday night, winning at the Galen Center on Southern Cal’s campus, before Minnesota came back on the play of Moore to go ahead in the fourth quarter and even the series at the Staples Center.

Then came this one Thursday night with 24 lead changes  and 11 ties.

Asked at the end how much longer can the Lynx solid core stay together, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, one of the Olympic assistants to Geno Auriemma and a La Salle graduate from the Philadelphia suburbs in South Jersey, said, “I don’t know, they just said stick a fork in it last year and all we did was get back to the finals and have the best record in the league.

“I don’t know, maybe you guys should start writing how we’re old and washed up and maybe it motivates them. I don’t know.”

But that answer is a winter away and now because of the extended duration caused by the one-month pause for the Olympics, as the WNBA action for 2016 gets sealed in the history books, the collegians have already been in the gym for several weeks and soon the curtain will go up on what is expected to be an unusually wide-open race to the NCAA title in Dallas March 31-April 2 at the Women’s Final Four.

That should offer enough excitement to pass the time until next spring when season No. 21 looms for the WNBA professionals.


WNBA Finals: Parker Gets MVP as Los Angeles Ends 14-Year Title Drought

By Rob Knox @knoxrob1


Candace Parker’s beautiful and brilliant résumé is complete. 

It took 40 minutes of amazingly breathtaking basketball that featured 24 lead changes, and 11 ties for a determined Parker to add the missing piece to her packed portfolio of milestones, accolades, and highlights. 

In an epic instant classic and a timeless thriller that went beyond the hype, the Los Angeles Sparks outlasted the Minnesota Lynx, 77-76, to win its first WNBA championship in 14 years Thursday night at the sold-out Target Center. It was an awesome night for women’s basketball in which these two terrific teams provided the perfect ending to the league’s 20th season.

“It’s surreal,” Parker said in a NBA-TV interview. “I feel like I am going to keep waking up from a dream because I feel like we all dreamt this. This journey has been so special with this group, this team and it was only fitting it came down to the way it was.”

The only way for the Sparks to leave the Target Center with the championship trophy and dethrone the reigning champion Lynx was for Parker to be at her absolute best. After a tough fourth game in Sunday’s loss, Parker delivered when it mattered most for the Sparks, who claimed the amazing best-of-five series, 3-2.

While it was nice for everybody to root for Parker to win her first WNBA title, she knew it was only going to be achieved one way: On the court and against the reigning champions in a hostile environment against arguably the most clutch player on the planet in Maya Moore. 

Delivering a ferocious assault on the basket, Parker’s disposition to dominate was better than anybody’s on the floor. She played with heart, hustle, grit and gristle in finishing with a game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds. 

Parker made sweet moves around the basket to finish shots, fadeaway jumpers, stole passes, threw no-look passes, snatched rebounds like they were winning Powerball tickets, and kept her team together when the Lynx made their final and impressive charge. 

The final 72 seconds featured five lead changes, which included a pair of Moore baskets that gave the Lynx temporary leads. 

Parker was named WNBA Finals MVP even though the history books will show that current MVP Nneka Ogwumike’s putback of her own missed shot with 3.1 seconds remaining was the difference. She finished with a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Once the final buzzer sounded, Parker was tackled by Kristi Toliver before getting up and then jumping into the arms of her jubilant gold-shirted Spark teammates. Parker, who spent some time lying on the floor, also shared a nice embrace with team part-owner Magic Johnson, who knows a thing or two about winning championships.

Nobody deserved this moment more than Parker, whose thoughts were with the late Pat Summitt, her former college coach at the University of Tennessee who died in June after a long battle with early onset dementia.

Parker’s first public statement as a newly crowned champion was succinct and poignant.

“This one’s for Pat,” a teary-eyed and emotional Parker said to ESPN’s Holly Rowe in the postgame interview in the immediate aftermath of the amazing contest. 

Whenever Parker thought about giving in, she heard Summitt’s voice in her head demanding more. Parker admitted listening to one of Summitt’s old speeches before the game. 

“I think Coach has been telling me this all year, that this series really was about defense and finishing plays rebounding, and I heard that for four years at Tennessee,” Parker said. “I wasn't upholding my end of the bargain in this series for my teammates.” 

Parker had seemingly been forgotten this season despite ranking among the league’s top 10 in points, rebounds and assists. Parker was left off the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team and not named to either the first or second All-WNBA team. Yet, despite the slights, Parker continued to shine, dominate, and lead her teammates. She didn’t complain and said all of the politically correct things when asked about the perceived slights.

“I've never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard, and I've not ever been around anybody that I'm more happy for than Candace tonight, for what she's gone through this season,” said Sparks head coach Brian Alger, who played “Rocky Top” on his phone before speaking at the postgame press conference. “It's been unbelievable. She stayed on the high road, fought through everything, stayed with it, was persistent, and sort of like – she went through sort of like what our team went through, the ups and downs. We're really happy with how we played tonight, showed a lot of resiliency and perseverance and made plays down the stretch.”

Parker’s been knocked down a few times with injuries and a few heartbreaking setbacks. However, Parker displayed championship hallmarks of great character and resilience in how she’s picked herself up and continued persevering until she finally reached the champagne-soaked promised-land. 

While winning championships have become the measuring stick for greatness, Parker was viewed as something different because she hadn’t been able to win a title since entering the league in 2008, which is unfair. A role model and hard-worker, Parker has been a gift and a transcendent talent that has helped the WNBA grow.

It’s great to see awesome people rewarded for the blood, sweat and tears they poured into their craft. 

Like any great player, Parker needed help and it arrived in bunches from a committee of contributors. Despite mounting foul trouble, the Sparks remained poised despite trailing by six points late in the third quarter. 

Chelsea Gray opened the fourth quarter with six consecutive points. Kristi Toliver lobbed in ridiculous rainbows from beyond the 3-point line. Alana Beard and Essence Carson played soul-to-soul defense and forced the Lynx into difficult shots that they made to their credit. Oguwmike was in the right place at the right time late in the game to score over the outstretched hands of 6 foot, 5 inch Sylvia Fowles. 

The unfortunate part of this classic contest was the shaky officiating in the second half. 

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was hit with a technical foul after sprinting down the sidelines – out of the coaches’ box – to get her teams’ attention to commit a foul after Fowles was injured. Toliver made the free throw. The biggest missed call was a made Ogwumike basket that appeared to leave her hands after the shot clock expired late in the contest. Three Spark points. One point Lynx loss. Do the math.

Quite naturally Reeve wasn’t happy.

“I don't get paid enough to have to do somebody else's job, too,” Reeve said when asked about what can be done to improve the quality of officiating. “Just get the simple things right, simple. Eight-second call, shot-clock violation. Get the simple things right and we'll live with the other stuff that happens in a game. I'm not taking anything away from LA. Please know that. It takes hustle plays to win championships on the road, and they made hustle plays. But it's unfortunate that we're even having this discussion.”

On Friday, the league issued a statement basically suppporting Reeve in saying the officials erred on the play and should not have allowed the basket.

Parker didn’t need a championship to validate her greatness, as her legacy was cemented before the WNBA Finals even started. However, since diamonds are a woman’s best friend Parker is thrilled to add some bling to her collection while silencing her bleacher critics forever. Now she can flash a championship ring in their faces.

“I can't even describe this journey that this team has been on,” Parker said. “I mean, everybody on this team has a story, and this last year has been really tough for me personally, and my teammates and my coaches were always there for me. I think I'm excited because we won a championship, but the journey to get here, I wouldn't have wanted to do it with anybody else, with any other team, any other coaches. It's amazing when you surround yourself with great people how fun it is and exciting when you get what you want."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

WNBA Finals: Will Los Angeles Regain Glory or Minnesota Maintain in Decisive Game 5

By Rob Knox @knoxrob1

In a fitting conclusion to the WNBA’s spectacular 20th season, the deciding fifth game between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx has the potential to be an epic showdown for the ages. 

It makes sense that the battle between the two best teams in the WNBA this season is coming down to one game for it all at the Target Center Thursday night.

 The game will be televised on ESPN beginning at 8 p.m. If everything plays out as expected, this game could have a transformational impact on the future of the league and how it’s viewed by casual observers and doubters.

Each major sport has had its magic moment. 

For MLB, it was game six of the 1975 World Series between the Reds and Red Sox that lifted the sport and World Series to another level. In the NFL, it was the 1958 championship sudden death thriller between the Giants and Colts that made the sport a fan favorite. 

College basketball had the 1979 NCAA title game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State. Five years later as professionals, the 1984 NBA Finals, won in seven scintillating games by Bird’s Celtics over Johnson’s Lakers, helped the league become popular.

Ironically, Johnson is now principal owner of the Sparks, having rescued the franchise several years ago from potential movement elsewhere on the left coast, potentially in the San Francisco Bay area.

There are plenty of delicious storylines in this decisive game. The biggest one is the Lynx’s quest to become the first team since the 2002 Sparks to repeat as champions. Furthermore, a Minnesota victory would tie them with the defunct Houston Comets for the most WNBA titles in league history with four. 

Fortunately for the Lynx, history is on their side as the home team is 3-1 in game fives since the WNBA went to the current three-of-five Finals setup in 2006.

For the Sparks, they are seeking their third overall championship and first since 2002. A Sparks win would tie them with the Lynx for the second-most titles in league history. 

Also, Candace Parker will be attempting to win her first WNBA title, which would be the missing piece to her sterling basketball resume. 

The first four games have featured buzzer beaters, blowouts, brilliant individual performances, soul-to-soul defense by both squads, a key missed officials call late in the fourth game and much more drama than an episode of “Scandal.” 

“I have no idea what to expect,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said about the fifth game following Sunday’s victory that forced the fifth game. “I know what to wish for, but you have no idea. You have no idea. We're just going to try to prepare our team and see what we can do. Like you said, I told our players this, it's an up-and-down series, never too high, never too low.”

The Lynx have been brilliant in the playoffs, compiling a 35-16 overall record. They are an amazing 24-4 (.857) at home all-time in the WNBA Playoffs. The Sparks remain atop the playoff win list overall, registering their 39th victory in game three’s blowout triumph in Los Angeles.

Minnesota is playing its second consecutive winner-take-all WNBA Finals game. Last season, it beat Indiana, 69-52. The last WNBA team to play in consecutive game fives was the Detroit Shock. The Shock beat the Sacramento Monarchs, 90-75, in 2006 before falling to the Phoenix Mercury, 108-92, in 2007.

History favors the Sparks in this matchup.

The Sparks have won twice at the Target Center this season, including the regular season. No team has lost consecutive games in this series.

Maya Moore was phenomenal in the fourth game going off for 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Moore, though, was the undisputed leader of the Lynx’s focus group. Aside from Moore’s fantastic fusillade, another reason why Minnesota won was because it outscored Los Angeles, 22-4, in fastbreak points and enjoyed a 41-25 edge on the glass.

“They’re a great team and they’re not going to falter,” Parker said. “Just from a technical standpoint, we have to rebound, that’s all it is. If we rebound, it limits them to just one shot and they’re not getting two and three looks at the basket. They killed us on the boards and second chance points. We know what we have to do.”

Minnesota displayed every ounce of its championship character, poise, resiliency and tenacity in the face of adversity to keep its season alive. Playing in a hostile environment and without key reserve and former all-star Janelle McCarville, who injured her back in the third game.

“We each won on each other's home court, and that's not easy to do,” Reeve said. “When you look at the home court that we have and our fans and you look at what exists here, it's a tall challenge, so credit to both teams for being able to get that done, and then now it's Game 5, which is what everybody was asking for, hoping for, and here we are.”

The Sparks could use the game three versions of Parker and league MVP Nneka Ogwumike. They combined for 45 points and were all over the court energizing their teammates with their hustle. However, in Sunday’s game, the pair combined for 25 harmless points. Los Angeles got a lift from Chelsea Gray, who scored a playoff career best 20 points.

Fortunately for the Sparks, head coach Brian Alger is a veteran coach who understands how to keep his squad together during tough times.

“We'll learn from this game, and we'll play better on Thursday,” Alger said. “We'll prepare, and we'll play better. I've been in this situation several times. The two ABL games, championships, we won in the fifth game. Not a whole lot different than tonight, but this experience, going through this, I could just sort of tell from our facial expressions in the locker room, this was new for them.

“We didn't lack desire to win, or a will. We competed hard enough. We've just got to put that back together and play with more poise. I think both teams will be much more fresh come Thursday. Both teams will have had a chance to get their legs back underneath them. I think it'll be competitive again on Thursday. That's what I anticipate.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

WNBA Finals: Moore's Play Sends Minnesota Over Los Angeles and Home for Decisive Game Five

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

Also For Blue Star Media

LOS ANGELES – It’s no coincidence that the Maya Moore era of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx has also been the championship era for the once forlorn franchise whose days seemed to be numbered before Cheryl Reeve became coach for the 2010 season and Moore arrived a year later as the No. 1 pick out of Connecticut.

Since then the Lynx, whose roster consists of Moore and three other 2016 Olympic gold medalists on the star-studded USA squad in Brazil, have won three WNBA titles in the past five years and thanks to the native of suburban Atlanta, are still alive to make it four-out-of-six.

Moore was simply sensational here Sunday night in the Staples Center getting the defending champions to stave off elimination with an 85-79 gritty victory over the host Los Angeles Sparks and send the series back home to Minneapolis and the Target Center Thursday night for a decisive game five matchup for the second straight season.

A year ago the Lynx were unable to close out the Indiana Fever on the road in Game 4 and then went home to pick up their third title.

This time they remained alive on the efforts of Moore and her game-high 31 points, taking a final narrow lead late in the game and holding off the Sparks to the disappointment of the highly vocal crowd of 12,885 fans that included former Lakers great Kobe Bryant who were hoping to see Los Angeles gain its first title since 2002.

The win also for the moment deprived Sparks super star Candace Parker of her first WNBA crown and enabled Minnesota, who re-gained home court advantage, to become the first back-to-back champion since Los Angeles achieved the feat with that crown in 2001.

A fourth title would also match the former Houston Comets for the best trophy haul in the 20th anniversary season of the league that launched in 1997 with those Texans capturing the first of all their crowns consecutively before Los Angeles snapped the streak in 2001.

“Obviously, we needed every bit of what Maya did,” said, Reeve, a former La Salle star out of the Philadelphia suburb of Washington Township in southern New Jersey, who was one of the assistants to UConn’s Geno Auriemma on this past summer’s USA Olympic squad.

“It wasn’t easy. You know I remember more of the turnovers (6) than the 31 points,” Reeve quipped. “There were two big threes that were memorable for me.

“But Maya made – Maya just makes plays. I think that much like Nneka (Ogwumike) after Game 2 came back in Game 3 and wanted to be more persistent, I thought Maya was more persistent in trying to find opportunities to score.
“It was in a variety of ways,” Reeve observed. “It was in multiple possessions. She was perimeter, post, it was in transition. It was in hustle plays. It was executing some stuff out of timeouts. It was getting fouled at times. Obviously, it was huge.”

Moore’s stats for the night were reflective of Reeve’s description, with the 31 points, nine rebounds, and five assists, while also connecting on 9-of-17 shots from the field, including 2-of-4 three-pointers, and being nearly perfect from the line, making 11 of 12 free throws. She also blocked two shots.

The former Huskies standout and two-time consensus national collegiate player of the year was not at her best Friday night up the road at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center when Los Angeles roared from the start and dominated the Lynx, to the surprise of Reeve.

“I imagine Maya tomorrow will come back and play her ‘Maya’ game tomorrow  because that’s what Maya does,” Reeve said at Saturday’s practice sessions reflecting on the rout and looking ahead to Sunday night.

Los Angeles coach Brian Agler, who has won the most games in professional women’s hoops in the United States, has won two previous titles with the Columbus Quest out of Ohio in the former American Basketball League, and with a dominating Seattle Storm group.

Moore’s play brings a comparison from him of a WNBA great of yesteryear who was part of that Houston dynasty.

  “…They’re not the same type of player but she’s a lot like Cynthia Cooper from the standpoint that no matter what happens, they’re always on balance. They always have the ability to gather themselves and finish on balance.

"It doesn’t matter if she’s taking it to the rim or if she’s off the dribble. She’s good. And then she has the ability to get you in bad spots and draw fouls. She’s difficult to defend.”

Under the new WNBA playoff format, whose eight teams qualified without regard to conference affiliation with the East and West, the Lynx and Sparks were the 1-2 best teams all season with each having successes on each other’s home court.

That continued into the playoffs with Los Angeles stealing Game 1 in Minneapolis on Alana Beard’s buzzer-beater at the finish, the Lynx fighting back with a dominating performance the next time out, only to see the Sparks do likewise here in Game 3, before the Lynx picked up their playoff road win Sunday night.

How Game 5 goes could go a long way to determine whether this is the overall classic of those postseason encounters that have gained that acclaim.

“I have no idea what to expect,” said Reeve, noting that she has yet to correctly surmise how her team would perform. “I know what to wish for, but you have no idea. You have no idea. We’re just going to try to prepare our team and see what we can do.

“We each won on each other’s home court and that’s not easy to do, when you look at the home court and our fans, and you look at what exists here, it’s a tall challenge, so credit to both teams for being able to get that done, and then now it’s Game 5, which is what everybody was asking for, hoping for, and here we are.”

As for Moore’s self-assessment of her night, she said, “You have to be able to just mentally lock in and let things go. You know if you hold on to things too long, you don’t have time to focus on what you need to do on the next play, in the next few possessions.

“The strength of our team is something I try to lead is next play, next play and not get rattled.”

The key in this series has been rebounding and unlike Friday night, Minnesota was tenacious on the boards with a 41-25 advantage, including 14-8 on the offensive glass.

The Lynx took care of that area despite going without Janelle McCarville, who left Friday’s game with back spasms and did not play Sunday, while veteran Rebekah Brunson was limited by foul trouble, scoring just six points. Sylvia Fowles, despite getting four fouls, scored 10 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

Seimone Augustus, one of the other Olympians along with Fowles and veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen, hit timely shots from the outside and scored 12 points, and Whalen scored 13.

Los Angeles was able to stay competitive off its long-range attack. Former Maryland all-American Kristi Toliver hit 4-of-6 treys to help her total of 15 points while former Duke star Chelsea Gray off the bench sizzled making 4-of-5 treys on the way to a team-high 20 points, while Parker scored 14 and Ogwumike, the league MVP, had 11 points and eight rebounds.

Beard scored 11.

Assessing his Los Angeles squad, Agler thought the four-day gap until Thursday’s 8 p.m. tip on ESPN2 will be useful to take a learning experience from Sunday night’s performance.

“We were making things happen down the stretch. We were tied at one time,” he said. “The game was in the balance there with two or three minutes, so we had opportunities, it’s just the ability to play with poise down the stretch.

“Again, I couldn’t be more proud of how we competed. Now we’ve got to partner that with poise and execution.”


Friday, October 14, 2016

WNBA Finals: Sparks Look to Parker to Light Up Tinseltown at Home in Game 3 Against the Champs

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

The Los Angeles Sparks are far from a one-woman team. 

However, in order to reach the champagne-soaked promise land and dethrone the Minnesota Lynx, the Sparks know a dazzling performance from their leading lady Candace Parker would be a welcomed sight.

As the WNBA Finals shift west to Los Angeles tied at a game apiece, Parker has yet to shed the shackles of the Lynx’s defense. 

Through two games of the WNBA Finals, Parker is shooting 8-for-24 (.333 percent) from the field and averaging 10 points and 6.5 rebounds. She scored six points in the Sparks’ 79-60 game two loss Tuesday night at Target Center.

Perhaps, Parker unleashes her fury and unfurls a vintage performance when game three begins Friday night at 9 p.m. on ESPN2 from the Galen Center on the University of Southern California campus because the Philly Flyers are meeting the Kings in the Staples Center to open the NHL season.

 Finding a way to decipher the riddle of Minnesota’s suffocating surveillance was a topic of discussion during Thursday’s practice.

“They are a really good defensive team, and I don’t know if there is any magic to what they’re doing, other than they’re just doing what they do, and they do it well,” Los Angeles head coach Brian Alger said. “They make you have to dig down deeper than you normally do. We’ve got to find ways to keep (Candace) on the move, and she’s going to have to find ways to really be assertive.” 

Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve was pleased with her teams’ defensive effort on Parker.

“When I think about the first game, I thought she got layups, so I didn’t like that very much,” Reeve said. “I thought we were better in the second game. It’s been okay. I think at times it’s been pretty solid. She’s getting shots and opportunities. We’re just trying to make it hard for her. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.” 

While WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike is averaging 16.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, Alger also believes she can be more aggressive as well. The Lynx present unique defensive matchups because of their length, quickness and height. Alger had some theories on how to combat the Lynx’s defense.

“Just being aggressive,” Alger said. “Just being more on their front foot than their back foot. Playing and using the skills that they have, their athleticism, their basketball instincts and their intelligence. They’re elite in those kind of ways. We need to find ways to bring that out.”

The Lynx who literally rebounded from being stunned in the opening game want to continue to keep Parker and Ogwumike quiet. 

The Lynx dominated the battle of the boards to the tune of 46-32 in squaring the series. They also held the Sparks to 32.9 percent shooting, well below their league-leading 48.7 season average. 

“At this point in the game, both teams know each very well,” Minnesota guard Maya Moore said. “Those are two very effective players. 

"Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of attention on those two. That’s no easy task. They are very talented and gifted players. The highest amount of attention will continue to be paid to both of them.”

Of course, one reason why Parker and Ogwumike are feeling more smothered than usual is because the Sparks have struggled with their 3-point shooting, making 6-of-32 attempts (18.7 percent) through two games. Los Angeles was the best 3-point shooting team in the WNBA during the regular season (37.5 percent on 15.7 attempts per game).

Hopefully for Spark fans, they can regain their shooting swagger from deep, which in turn could create more room for Parker and Ogwumike to maneuver. Veteran Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver understands everything begins with her. 

Toliver finished the WNBA regular season as the only player in the league to make at least one three-pointer in every game played. In 33 games, Toliver knocked down 81 three-pointers, a new season-best.

“I think I’ll always have to maintain my aggressiveness, but I have to think about the game better,” Toliver said. “I can’t get too emotional during the game. In these playoffs, everything feels amplified.

"I need to take a step back and refocus. That will help me regain my composure and getting my teammates the right shots. We know we have to be more aggressive and assertive. We also have to compete harder. If we can protect home court, that means we’ll be champions. That’s all we’re thinking about.”

About that homecourt advantage. It hasn’t meant much as the visiting team has won four of the five meetings this season between these teams. Minnesota won twice at the Staples Center this season. The Sparks are 2-0 at home this postseason. 

The Lynx don’t care where they play because of its experience and leadership. Minnesota went to Indiana tied 1-1 last year in the WNBA Finals and captured the third game on a Moore buzzer beater. The Lynx won the series in five games.

“We know they are going to come in and jump on us from the start,” Minnesota forward Seimone Augustus said. “We have to be able to stop their run and go own our run. That’s how it’s going to be the entire night. It’s going to be a heavyweight bout. If they throw a punch, we have to throw a punch right back. No matter what, we cannot give up on our defensive and offensives schemes.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

WNBA Finals: After Alana Beard's Winner For L.A. It's On to Game TwoWith the Defending Champs

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

In a game that lived up to all the hype and then some, Alana Beard’s fingerprints were all over the Los Angeles Sparks’ thrilling 78-76 victory over the Minnesota Lynx in a spine-tingling opener of the best-of-five WNBA Finals series at the Target Center Sunday afternoon

From her memorable buzzer-beating shot in the corner that provided the winning margin to the two gigantic defensive plays she made down the stretch (blocking Lindsey Whalen’s shot and stealing a pass off an inbounds), Beard sparkled on both ends of the floor. 

Sometimes in games with so much star power, unexpected heroes emerge to make a difference.

  Beard has been the glue of the Sparks defense. A lockdown specialist, the former Duke sensation  was named to the First Team All-Defense this season for the third time in her career.

A veteran and No. 2 draft pick of the Washington Mystics, the 34-year-old Beard understands the Sparks still have plenty of work to do. 

While Beard was thrilled with sinking one of the greatest shots in the 20-year history of the WNBA, she knows the Minnesota’s capabilities. The Lynx dropped the opening game of last year’s Finals series to the Indiana Fever before prevailing in five games.

In that series the difference was another buzzer-beater -- Maya Moore's long bomb in Game 3 that assured the Lynx the safety valve of playing decisive Game 5 at home where Minnesota grabbed the third title to its collection.

Minnesota will look to replicate last season’s success when it hosts game two Tuesday at the Target Center. The Lynx won games two, three and five last year. Game time is 8 p.m. on ESPN2. 

It was awesome so many people tuned in and witnessed Beard’s big shot as Game 1 delivered a 0.5 overnight rating, the best since 2010. 

The matchup between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks resulted in a +25% increase from last year’s Game 1. The number could be higher Tuesday as there’s no NFL to take away viewers. 

Still, give the WNBA credit for holding its own against the pro boys of the gridiron just as it did in 2003, the first time it went up against the NFL with the sensational best-of-three thriller won with a 2-0 comeback by Bill Laimbeer's former Detroit Shock after the then-two-time defending champs Sparks thumped the Motor City women in Game 1 at home.

Meanwhile, add to the big TV viewership from Sunday the word of mouth of how enthralling the opener was combined with the endless social media loops and SportsCenter highlights of Beard’s basket, a viewing record for the league is possible Tuesday night.

“Um, I don't think I've ever hit a game winner, so it's pretty cool,” Beard said following game one. “Pretty cool. But this is only one game, and that's how we think about it. We came in and did what we wanted to do. We wanted to get a win, so now we have another game.”

Just playing and performing at a high level is special for Beard, who has overcome her share of obstacles. She missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons because of ankle and foot injuries. 

In 2015, Beard was grounded by plantar fasciitis. She played just 14 games in her fourth season with the Sparks.

  Beard arrived in Los Angeles in 2012 with a reputation for being a dynamic scorer. She transformed into a human handcuff and is now one of the elite defenders on the planet.

She never lost faith that she would return to the floor and perform at a high level. She tolerated the pain, endured the surgeries, and persevered through rehab workouts. Beard is thriving as she has embraced her role for the tough-as-nails Sparks as a defensive dynamo. 

She knows where opposing guards are going before they do. She understands the nuances of playing defense like watching her opponents’ waist and eyes. Beard is an irritant who knows what brand of deodorant every guard uses because she’s normally that close to them.

“It’s been a long journey for me,” Beard said following Monday’s practice. “I think I said it before a couple of days ago that I am the type of person that I have just trained my mind to stay in the moment.

 "Yeah, injuries I have had them. All athletes have them. It’s been a tough journey for me, just as it would have been with any other athlete, but right now it’s this moment. It’s something that I am relishing and enjoying with the special people that we have.

“It’s one of the best feelings, something that you just replay over and over in your mind, and now that moment has come. It felt good. We won the game and that’s the most important thing.”   

The Sparks know they need to be better in the second game if they are going to return home Friday night up two games on the reigning champions. Including the regular season, two of the four games between these titans have been decided in the final 10 seconds. 

Renee Montgomery drained a 3-pointer in the first regular season game in Los Angeles to give the Lynx a dramatic win in June. They have split four games with the road team winning each contest.

“Obviously, we’re focusing mostly on ourselves and how we do things,” league MVP Nneka Ogwumike said. “They (Minnesota) have a lot of things that we need to stop, and so team defense is important and something we can’t get away from. I think mentally we have to be aggressive and that’s something that we did a really good job of yesterday. 

"I think just sticking to what we know, and what we know is our offense. Our offense is very simple so keeping it very plain and understanding what we need to get out of our offense is what coach is harping on for us right now.” 

Despite the setback, the Lynx aren’t panicking. Moore scored all 18 of her points in the second half to move into first place on the WNBA's career finals scoring list, passing former UConn great Diana Taurasi. The Lynx know that they need to tighten some things up as they committed 16 turnovers.

“We had a few hiccups here and there,” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said. “Once we went back and looked at the video, it’s all things that we can correct, which is good. Offensively, we have to be a little bit more efficient and not have too many lost possessions where we’re not getting the shot that we want or getting into the position that we want. 

“Defensively, we held them to 40 percent in the first half, which is something we always pride ourselves on, but we had a few players that got loose. Nneka [Ogwumike] got loose a little bit in the second half.

 "Kristi started to hit a little bit and Chelsea Gray actually came in and gave them a big boost prior to [Alana] Beard hitting the shot. We clean up a few things on defense as well as take care of offensive possessions and we’ll be fine.”   

The intensity for the second game will be ratcheted up a few notches especially as both teams play with a sense of super urgency. The game will be more physical and more than likely come down to the final three minutes. 

“It’s always intense when you’re in The Finals when you have two of the best teams going up against each other,” Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles said. “We just have to focus on the things we didn’t do so well yesterday and continue to do the things we did great. I know that from the outside looking in a lot of people get caught up in Game 1, but it’s a long series.”

Saturday, October 08, 2016

WNBA Finals: A Classic in the Making Begins Sunday Afternoon

By Rob Knox @knoxrob1

This is as good as it gets. 

Two heavyweights. 

Maya Moore. Candace Parker. Lindsay Whalen. Nneka Oguwmike.

As one former wide receiver said, “Get your popcorn ready.”

The WNBA’s landmark 20th season concludes with a historic matchup between the Minnesota Lynx (28-6) and Los Angeles Sparks (26-8). Both squads have a combined winning percentage of .794 (54-14), the highest for a Finals series in WNBA history. 

Game One of the much anticipated best-of-five series begins Sunday afternoon in Minnesota at 3 p.m. on ABC. Games one, two and five if necessary will be in Minnesota while games three and four will be in Los Angeles along with Mel Greenberg.

Minnesota and Los Angeles both broke the record for consecutive victories to start a season en route to securing the top two seeds in the new-look playoffs, which featured the top eight teams regardless of conference and set up the possibility for these Western Conference rivals to meet in The Finals.

“I am looking forward to a great series,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said during a league-wide conference call last week. “These teams are evenly matched. If you’re looking for a way to measure an advantage for each team. Minnesota’s supporting cast is deeper and its second unit has come together.”

This series will showcase three of the last four WNBA Most Valuable Players presented by Samsung: Ogwumike (2016) and Candace Parker (2013, as well as 2008) and Moore (2014).

 Ogwumike is trying to become the sixth player in league history to be named MVP and win a WNBA title in the same season, a group composed of Cynthia Cooper (1997-98), Sheryl Swoopes (2000), Lisa Leslie (2001), Diana Taurasi (2009) and Lauren Jackson (2010).

Along with three MVPs, The Finals is stocked with four WNBA Top 20@20 presented by Verizon selections (Moore, Parker and Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus and Whalen); the 2015 Finals MVP and 2016 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year presented by Samsung (Sylvia Fowles); the 2016 WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year presented by Samsung (Los Angeles’ Jantel Lavender); and six former No. 1 overall draft picks (Parker, Ogwumike and Ann Wauters of Los Angeles; Augustus, Moore and Janel McCarville of Minnesota).

“I think this matchup will draw fans and media,” Robinson said. “They are excited. Both teams gave us so much to talk about all season long especially with their historical starts.

''This is an opportunity with new playoff system to see two best teams play each other. There’s star power, lots of talent on the floor and two great, respected coaches in (Lynx coach) Cheryl Reeve and (Sparks’ head man) Brian Alger.”

Yet, at the core of this Finals matchup is Moore and Parker. Moore is looking for her fourth ring while Parker is trying for her first. This is Parker’s first visit to the WNBA Finals while Moore is here for the fifth time in the last six years. 

Though Moore enjoyed a typically consistent and great year, she finished third in the MVP voting behind Ogwumike and New York’s Tina Charles. In the Lynx’s three-game sweep of the Mercury, Moore averaged 25.7 points per game. 

Moore’s beautifully brilliant game is elegant. She is a basketball version of Zoe Saldana’s Colombiana character: Graceful, charming and calculating with an assassins’ mentality. She turns the basketball court into her personal playground doing essentially what she wants whenever she pleases.

“Maya is a player who has elevated not only the Lynx, but the entire WNBA,” Robinson said. “She plays on both ends of the floor. She’s won three championships in five years and to me, that’s the mark of a champion. She’s undervalued. She’s not the most demonstrative player and there’s great value with her as she leads by example.”

Then on the other side is Parker, who is fired up, healthy, rested and focused especially after torching the Sky. During the four-game playoff series against the Sky, the gloriously skilled Parker was at her unstoppable best in averaging a team-high 22.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. 

Parker played with an inspired, uninhibited rage as she shot an efficient 51 percent from the field, a team best 4.5 assists per outing and 1.8 blocks per game. 

“Against Chicago, Candace had more spring and hop than I have ever seen in her,” Robinson said. “A rested and healthy Candace Parker is a dangerous Candace Parker. The WNBA is made up of great stars and she is as bright as I’ve ever seen in this league. When Candace Parker is playing well, fans are happy.”

Just like many are thrilled for this terrific matchup. 

The Knox Line: Sparks in four emotional games and Parker finishes off a tough year with her first title.

DRIVE FOR FIVE: Lynx center Rebekkah Brunson, a WNBA champion with the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005 and with Minnesota in 2011, 2013 and 2015, can become the league's first player to win five titles. 

She is one of six players with four WNBA titles, with the other five all winning championships with the Comets from 1997-2000: Janeth Arcain, Cynthia Cooper, Tammy Jackson, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson.

SCORCHING PACE: Minnesota is averaging a WNBA-high 97.0 points per game in the playoffs – part of a prolific postseason across the league. Teams are averaging 88.4 points in the 2016 playoffs, which is 13.9 points more than last season (74.5 ppg) and on track to break the record of 84.0 points from 2009. The record pace for offense follows the league’s highest-scoring regular season ever (81.9 ppg).

REMARKABLE REEVE: With Minnesota’s three-game sweep of the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Semifinals, 2016 WNBA Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve passed New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer for the most playoff victories in WNBA history. Her postseason winning percentage of .762 (32-10) is a league record.

FOUR OF A KIND?: Minnesota, on the heels of a franchise-record 28-win regular season, is looking to become the second four-time champion in WNBA history (the Houston Comets won the league’s first four titles, from 1997-2000). The Lynx also can become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Sparks in 2001 and 2002. Minnesota begins its league-record fifth Finals appearance with an all-time postseason winning percentage of .702 (33-14), the highest mark ever.

ATTENDANCE: The WNBA registered its highest attendance (1,561,530) since 2011 and the highest average attendance (7,655) over the same time period (a 4.6% increase over last year). 

 The season was highlighted by record-breaking numbers for the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever.  The Sky set franchise records for average attendance (7,009) and single-game crowd (16,444) against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 13.  The Fever had its highest average (8,575) since 2001, and boosted the second highest single-game attendance in franchise history of 17,704 on Sept. 18 for legend Tamika Catchings’ final regular-season game.  Also this season, the Phoenix Mercury recorded the highest average attendance (10,351) for the franchise since 1999.

VIEWERSHIP: Combined ESPN and ESPN2 viewership was up 11% this season over last year (224,000 vs. 202,000). The season was highlighted by the season opener on ESPN between the Phoenix Mercury and the Minnesota Lynx, which delivered 505,000 viewers and delivered the highest-rated, regular-season WNBA game on the ESPN networks since 2011. 

Thursday, October 06, 2016

WNBA Finals: Candace Parker Close to Making a Nine-Year Quest Into Glory Road

By Rob Knox @knoxrob1

One of the most transcendent talents -- regardless of gender -- in the last 10 years, Candace Parker gets a chance to add the missing piece to her sterling basketball resume. 

It’s probably safe to say that everybody outside of Minnesota is rooting for Parker and the Sparks to claim their first WNBA title since 2002 and third overall as a franchise. 

It’s often said that the best things come to those who wait. 

If that’s the case for Parker, who has waited her entire nine-year career for this opportunity, the next two weeks should provide riveting viewing. 

Her journey to the WNBA Finals has been paved with heartbreak, potholes, bumps, and injuries. 

But she never lost faith. 

Parker provided a rude reminder to those bleacher critics who thought after battling injuries for parts of her career that she lost a little bit of her desire, skills and focus by delivering a beautifully dominating 29-point performance in helping the Sparks close out the short-handed Chicago Sky in the semifinals at Allstate Arena in the Windy City on Wednesday night. 

Demonstrating how bad she wanted to eliminate the Sky, Parker scored 15 points in the fourth quarter. 

She had a crazed look in her eyes during her exquisite exhibition in which she combined textbook fundamentals with mesmerizing flair. 

Parker punctuated her effort by draining a deep 3-pointer that concluded her scoring show late in the final quarter. 

Now, the next task for the Sparks is finding a way to dethrone the reigning champion Lynx starting Sunday at the raucous Target Center in Minneapolis in the best-of-five WNBA Finals. 

Game One will be televised on ABC beginning at 3 p.m. 

With the two best teams meeting in the Finals, the first year under the WNBA’s new playoff format was a smashing success. 

Otherwise this series would have been just for the Western title, which might have allowed the New. York Liberty out of the Eastern Conference to maintain its desire to end its 20-year drought for the league title.

“It's been a long journey,” Parker said to the Associated Press following its victory over the Sky. “We haven't done anything yet. We haven't accomplished our goal.”

Parker’s ebullient presence along with the angelic Maya Moore has the potential to make this matchup with the Lynx epic. 

Not that Parker needed to prove anything to anybody, but inside she’s probably thrilled with participating in the Finals for the first time in her career. 

A 16-time WNBA Western Conference Player of the Week, six-time All-WNBA selection, three-time All-Star, and two-time member of the All-Defensive Team, Parker has scored over 4,000 career points. 

Unfortunately, despite winning two national championships at the University of Tennessee, two Olympic gold medals, two MVP awards and a Rookie of the Year accolade during her captivating career, none of those points have been scored in a Finals game.

That’s going to refreshingly change for Parker, who deserves this moment. 

For Parker, winning the championship would be the perfect finish to a difficult year. 

First she was omitted from the United States Olympic Women’s Basketball Team in a puzzling decision and then her college coach, Pat Summit died after a battle with Alzheimer’s in June.

“Outside of the Lady Vol family, everybody knows that coach Summit is a legend who has touched lives and grown the game of basketball,” Parker said of her college coach back in June. “She changed the nature of women’s basketball. 

"I am looking at it from a personal aspect, she changes the individuals. She changed the way I look at life. Everything she did was to make me a better individual.”

Parker took those lessons to heart and inspired her teammates. After sprinting to a 20-1 start, the Sparks wobbled down the stretch losing seven of their last 13 games, which raised some valid concerns about their ability to be the last team standing.

Through it all, Parker played through the pain, blocked out the negative noise, said all the right things publicly after being left off the Olympic team and helped the Sparks enjoy one of the best seasons in team history.

During the four-game playoff series against the Sky, the gloriously skilled Parker was at her unstoppable best in averaging a team-high 22.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. 

Parker played with an inspired, uninhibited rage as she shot an efficient 51 percent from the field, a team best 4.5 assists per outing and 1.8 blocks per game. 

Blending a combination of beauty and athletic prowess, the 30-year-old Parker has been a perfect ambassador for the WNBA as well as a terrific role model for youngsters and working mothers. 

She’s enjoyed success in high school, college and the WNBA despite the ultimate prize eluding her. 

After losing to San Antonio in the playoffs in her rookie year, Parker was disappointed but she knew she would reach the Finals soon.

Soon dissolved into a series of frustrating finishes before 2016 arrived and a mature, rested and motivated Parker emerged. This season her savvy leadership meshed with her talented and determined teammates.

Sometimes for an elite athlete, less is more and that was true for Parker, who rode shotgun as teammate Nneka Ogwumike, a former Stanford star, was named the WNBA MVP for the first time in her career. 

“Being at training camp since day one, we set the tone on what the expectations were,” Parker said earlier this year to womhoopsguru.com. “I was really excited and anxious to get the season going.

"Many of our players got in early and put their touch on things. Our culture, chemistry and comradely are the best I've been part of.

Parker set the tone for a memorable year beginning the season with an eye-opening effort. She started the season with a 34-point performance in a 30-point win against Seattle.

The Sparks wn their first 12 games, setting a record for the best start in franchise history.

Los Angeles has been blessed with a committee of contributors that has helped it soar. From the sticky defense of Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray and Essence Carson, clutch shooting of Kristi Toliver along with the improved performance of Sixth Woman of the Year Jantel Lavender, the Sparks, under head coach Brian Alger, have been solid.

Last year was difficult for Sparks as Parker missed half of the season after recovering from the rigors of consistently playing basketball year round. 

By the time she returned, the Sparks were mired near the bottom of the league standings. Yet, they  

still made the playoffs before being eliminated by the Lynx in three games.

Now, Parker gets to finally display all of her skills on the WNBA’s grandest stage against the best team this decade, which is a terrific treat for every hoops aficionado.

It’s always great when one of the best and most versatile players on the planet gets rewarded for her elegant grace, hard work, positivity, advancing the legacy of women’s basketball and unrelenting passion.