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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

WNBA Playoffs: Monarchs Champions At Last!

By Mel Greenberg

The long wait is over for both the newly-crowned WNBA champion Sacramento Monarchs and a slew of players on its roster after the 62-59 triumph over the Connecticut Sun Tuesday night at the Arco Arena deprived the visitors a chance to extend the series to a deciding fifth game back East.

For the third straight season, the WNBA winner is a franchise that had once been speculated headed for distinction.

In 2003, it was the Detroit Shock pulling the worst-to-first turnaround, followed by the Seattle Storm exciting the Emerald City a year ago.

The Monarchs, one of the surviving six charter franchises of the WNBA’s orginal eight from the summer of 1997, prevailed as the Maloof family, also owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, stayed the course.

The triumph comes just a season too late for former Olympic gold medallist Ruthie Bolton-Hollifield, a member of the first Monarchs squad who retired in the offseason.

“Timing’s everything,” the former Auburn star quipped last week when the best-of-five series began in Connecticut.

Let’s go down the list of Monarchs who reversed unhappy endings, beginning with finals MVP Yolanda Griffith.

Although she has two Olympic gold medals to her credit, this was only the second time “Yo” had a chance to appear in a professional league championship series in the United States.

The other time was in 1998 as a member of the then-expansion Long Beach StingRays which captured the first two games of a best-of-five series against the Columbus Quest in the former American Basketball League and then lost the next three when the games moved to Ohio.

Five months ago, rookie point guard Kristin Haynie helped lead Michigan State on a Cinderella ride to the Women’s Final Four and a stunning comeback against Tennessee in the semifinals, only to lose in the championship game against Baylor.

Third-year pro Kara Lawson suffered four straight NCAA disappointments with Tennessee from 1999-2000 through 2003, but was one of the key members of the youthful side of the Monarchs roster.

Nicole Powell’s sensational career at Stanford ended with a missed three-pointer against Tennessee that cost the Cardinal a trip to the Women’s Final Four in 2004. Then she languished on the bench as a rookie with the Charlotte Sting a year ago before an offseason trade brought her to Sacramento, where her three-point shooting helped make the Monarchs best in the West and life easier in the playoff run.

Veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro helped lead Old Dominion to an upset of NCAA tournament-favorite Stanford in the national semifinals, but the Monarchs failed in the championship game against Tennessee in 1997.

DeMya Walker’s odyssey as a pro was recounted in a blog report about the former Virginia star in the playoffs earlier in the tournament .

WNBA all-rookie Chelsea Newton never made it to the NCAA tournament her first season at Rutgers and failed at three attempts thereafter with the Scarlet Knights to get to the Women’s Final Four, including last March when the squad lost to Tennessee in Philadelphia at the Elite Eight level of the tournament.

Second-year pro Rebekkah Brunson, a former Georgetown star, never made it to the NCAA tournament at all with the Hoyas.

When the championship series began in Uncasville in the East, it was mentioned to Brunson, who was standing near Newton, that some things never change. Here’s a couple of Big East Conference women trying to beat a team in Connecticut.

“Oh, this is different,” Brunson quipped. “I never got to beat a team in Connecticut, before.”

The Monarchs did this time, however, and now they’re all champions.

Chicago: Reach for the Sky.

The nickname and logo of the new Chicago team was unveiled in the Windy City, Tuesday, and it will be known as the Sky.

Here’s an idea for next summer. Play the first preseason game in an outdoor setting in one of the parks.

The nickname is cool, but we can see those headlines now, including the one we put above this item.

The first losing streak will prompt: “The Sky is Falling!”

If the post players are tall and effective, will we call them Skyscrapers on the backboards??

Finally, do we now refer to owner and successful real estate entrepreneur Michael Alter as Sky King???

-- Mel

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

WNBA Finals: Notes and Quotes Before Game One Tips

By Mel Greenberg

UNCASVILLE, Conn. _ Three Mikes will be involved on the sidelines coaching the San Sacramento Monarchs and the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA best-of-five championship finals that begin in the Mohegan Sun Arena on Wednesday night.

Only one, however, will be human and that would be Mike Thibault, who has transformed the former Orlando Miracle into one of the top teams in the WNBA.

Thibault, a former NBA assistant coach, took over when the franchise was purchased by the Mohegan Indian Tribe and moved here in Feb. 2003 to their vast casino-entertainment establishment.

The other “Mikes,” however, will give you a direct perspective during the games on ESPN2 and ABC because they are the electronic devices Thibault and his Monarchs counterpart John Whisenant will wear during the broadcasts.

The effect was dramatic last week when Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor was miked during the Western Conference finals and late in the opening game when the Monarchs rallied with a key play, he was heard to tell Sheryl Swoopes and others in the Houston huddle, “I screwed up.”

Multi-Media Couple

Two well-known Rushins in the print and broadcast world, who are also married to each other, are covering the WNBA finals.

Mrs. Rushin is more identifiable to most of you as Rebecca Lobo, the former University of Connecticut star who is helped lead the Huskies to their first national title in 1995 and is doing sideline work for ESPN2 and ABC.

Her husband Steve is on the scene for Sports Illustrated.

DeMya’s Odyssey

In our print coverage in Wednesday’s editions, which can be found on the internet at Philly.Com, we had some comments from Sacramento Monarchs’ forward DeMya Walker, a former Virginia star who is a native of Mount Holly, N.J., and graduate of Rancocas Valley High School.

Space limitations did not allow to cite everything she said, but we can mention more because of the wonders of the internet.

This was Walker’s response when a TV reporter asked how she came to be one of the Monarchs’ top players.

“My road is unbelievable. I went from supposedly a top ten draft pick, to the ABL folding, to not get getting drafted, to going to a free-agent camp in Minnesota (1999), to get cut because I was young, because they said the older players needed a chance, to playing in Italy, to working out as hard as I could, to come into Portland (the former WNBA Portland Fire franchise), with eight post players, all of which were older than me, all of which had more experience than me, to playing as hard as I could, to waiting till the last day of roster cuts, and then my coach waited until the last moment, I didn’t even know, I was going to practice and if I wasn’t supposed to be there they would have told me, and then they told me they traded Tari Phillips. An ABL All-Star, an unbelievable player (to New York), just to keep me.

“And that’s how my (WNBA) road began, and then went from strictly a defensive specialist, I only played when you really needed people, really needed defense, really needed a stop, then you played me. If you didn’t, I wasn’t on the court.

“Then I went back overseas to Switzerland, played as hard as I could, worked on my offense, came back and moved up to sixth man, so I got some playing time, I was in an important role, and then I tore my left MCL, I didn’t play for six weeks, then I came back for the last week of the season.

“Then I went to Korea, didn’t like it there, went back to Italy, then came back and was determined to be a starter, but it really wasn’t working out.

“Then (former SW Missouri scoring sensation) Jackie Stiles got hurt, we needed a three-guard, my coach said, `I think you can do it.’ So she threw me in as a three, it ended up being great for me, everything was going great, everything was terrific, and then the next offseason, I decided I was going to be better, but they (WNBA) folded my team, got tossed in the dispersal draft, again!, I was supposed to go to Phoenix as the number three pick, they took Tamicha Jackson because their point guard wasn’t coming back, and then Sacramento took me as a No. 5, and I’ve been in heaven ever since.”

Incidentally, Walker said her parents are in heaven, also, in making the trip here from New Jersey, but not just at the opportunity to watch their daughter perform.

“They can’t wait to get here and play at the casino,” Walker said.

Ringing Up Sales

Former UConn star Nykesha Sales, a home-grown product of the Nutmeg State, talked about the enjoyment playing with the Sun.

“We have a lot of fun because we enjoy playing with each other, we enjoy each other’s game, we enjoy the personality, and we enjoy the philosophy in the system that coach is using for us, so with all those in place, finally, and having those key components on our team, and having a great coaching system, and having those type of personalities that are very unselfish, I think, you look like you’re having fun, and at the same time you’re winning games, so it makes it that much better.”

Sales noted that even though Connecticut holds the home-court advantage this time in the finals, there are some negatives in the newly expanded best-of-five system.

“The problem is, it’s a back-to-back. If you had two games at home, and maybe you’re playing Wednesday and Friday, that’s definitely home-court advantage, but kind of having to play your two back-to-back, it’s definitely home court, but it’s a little different,” Sales said.

“When they get to their place, they get two home games with a little rest. There are some odds and ends, but the fans here are incredible.”

Sales has seen numerous injuries, such as the one expected to sideline Sun point guard sensation for at least Wednesday night, occur at tough times in a career dating back to her collegiate days when she, herself, got hurt near the end of UConn’s season in 1997-98.

“I’ve just about seen it all in 12 years, being a professional and going back to college,” Sales said.

“Definitely, key parts of teams do get hurt, but other players step up. You just go out there and continue with a game plan. I think we’re a laid-back team. We’re not going to get too frantic about it. ‘Coach’ isn’t getting too panicky about it. If we stay within the same game plan, we should be fine.”

Snake Eyes and Three Bars – Sort Of

All that said, dear readers, let me sign off tonight with this thought:

Think of all the money I saved by not hanging out here at the slot machines so I can send you this extra blog report.

We’ll be back in the wee hours after we file our print story on the opening round.

-- Mel

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sue Gunter Enshrined at Basketball Hall of Fame

By Mel Greenberg

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. _ Sue Gunter, the longtime coach of LSU, who also coached at Middle Tennesee and Stephen F. Austin, would have been proud of her successor and former all-American.

Given the most difficult job of the five inductees at Friday’s night Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony here, Pokey Chatman stepped in and delivered a moving acceptance speech of behalf of Gunter, who died last month after a lengthy illness.

Joining Gunter in the induction class of 2005 were former Brazilian women’s superstar Hortencia Marcari, Syracuse men’s coach Jim Boheim, Connecticut men’s coach Jim Calhoun, and Hubie Brown, who has coached several NBA teams and has been a broadcast analyst.

Much of what Chatman said was the night-time lead of the Associated Press wire service’s coverage of the event.

Prior to the speech, there was a video introduction as there were for the other four honorees. Chatman was escorted to the podium by former UCLA star Ann Meyers, a member of the hall who is also a broadcast analyst for ESPN and several other networks.

Besides noting the passing of Gunter, there was also the appropriate mention of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi, and other parts of the Southeast.

Then Mike Breen introduced the video tribute by saying Gunter’s legacy would forever be part of basketball history.

Meyers, who played for Gunter on the 1980 Olympic team, commented in the video, “Coach Gunter deserves induction not just because what she’s given back to the game, but how important she’s been to the legacy of women’s basketball when she first started back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sue Gunter fought for the right for women to have the opportunity to play.”

Chatman, in the film, observed, “She was the coach. She was also the administrator and the trainer, she was also the custodial worker, she understood how to make the big time what you are.

“From day one, coach Gunter took care of me. She was my mom away from home. When you know her, you know all of her. I mean, there’s no secrets. She let you in.”

Washington Mystics rookie Tameka Johnson said, “There’s not a day that goes by when I step on the floor that coach Gunter is not with me.”

Then Chatman, who was previously Gunter’s top assistant, took over with her acceptance on Gunter’s behalf.

“When I first walked in the door and saw the Hall of Fame, I thought, `Man, I hope they don’t make the rookie go first.’

“It’s interesting because I should be the least-nervous person here. I only had to do one thing to stand here tonight, and that was choosing Louisiana State as a high school senior.

“I spent 15 years witnessing coach Gunter’s mastery. I always had the honor of filling in. I filled in as a point guard, and I learned a lot about basketball, but I learned more about life through basketball.

“Then I stepped in as her assistant and I learned how to teach the game of basketball.

“Then I stepped in as her interim head coach, and led her team to the Final Four,” said Chatman, who also took the Tigers back to the finals last season.

“And now I stand before you on a night that should have been the grandest for her.”

Chatman mentioned how Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had remarked to her earlier in the evening as “Sue Junior.”

“I’ll try to do my best Sue Junior. If she was with us tonight, she would first thank the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Those of us, who knew her dearly, understood she struggled with the limelight. This is a different type of limelight. She should not be seen on just the cover of the media guide. She should be seen on the cover of basketball,” Chatman continued.

She mentioned being at the edge of Gunter’s hospital bed last April when the news of the selection to the Hall occurred.

“I saw a smirk at the corner of her mouth. And then I looked and saw the Gunter wink. And that said more to me than any words could ever express.”

Chatman talked about Middle Tennessee giving Gunter her first job, “taking a chance on a young, hot-headed, official-attack coach in her early 20s.”

“I thank her because I know she’s smiling down on me now. If she was given five minutes (for the speech), she would be done in three. But she’s not the boss tonight and I’m going to take all five.

“I thank my lucky stars I made that decision in 1987 to become part of her life. I hope I can come close to living up to her legacy. Thank you.”

Summitt was asked for thoughts afterwards as part of the NBA-TV and ESPN Classic broadcast of the event.

“I think about what an awesome person and friend Sue Gunter was,” said Summitt, who was one of her assistants on the 1980 USA team. “Not only to Pat Summitt, but to all the student athletes that she coached, and all the staff members that she had a chance to touch in her lifetime.”

Asked about Gunter’s influence on her coaching, Summitt smiled and said, “There’s no question Sue had a softer side than maybe Pat Summitt did when she coached me, but the thing she taught me is it’s ok to let down your guard and allow your players to get to know you. They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Earlier in the day, Hortencia was asked if she had any aspirations to join the WNBA when it launched in 1997.

The Brazilian responded through a translator, saying that she had just given birth and had planned to soon have another child.

Asked who was the best American women’s player she ever went up against, Hortencia said, “It’s tough to say. There were so many good ones. But to name one – (Southern Cal alum and Hall of Famer) Cheryl Miller.”

Brown, in his speech, referred to Hortencia as the best women’s player he ever saw, which occurred when he broadcasted an international tournament.

New York Liberty general manager and Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski, the former Montclair State scoring sensation, was among the notables in attendance, Friday night, as was former WNBA president Val Ackerman, now president of USA Basketball.

Lucia Harris-Stewart, a former Delta State star who was one of the first women inducted into the Naismith Hall, was also in the house.

That said, we’ll be back later today to wrap up the WNBA weekend and a brief look ahead to the finals.

-- Mel

Thursday, September 08, 2005

WNBA Phoenix Mercury GM: Geno Too Expensive

By Mel Greenberg

If the Phoenix Mercury will rise and take flight once more in the WNBA, it won’t happen with University of Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma in the pilot’s seat guiding the liftoff next summer.

Most of Auriemma’s reunions with his former Huskies star Diana Taurasi, who finished her second season with the Mercury, will still occur at her alma mater’s collegiate games this winter.

Of course, Taurasi is also likely to be found partaking menu delicacies at Auriemma’s new restaurant establishment opening at the Mohegan Sun next summer when the Mercury make their annual WNBA visit to play the Connecticut Sun in Uncasville.

Mercury general manager Seth Sulka put a halt to reports in three Connecticut papers in Monday’s editions that Auriemma was holding an offer to jump to the pro ranks in Phoenix to fill the job vacated on Friday when Carrie Graf’s contract was not renewed.

“Geno is not a candidate for our head coaching job,” the Arizona Republic quoted Sulka in Wednesday’s editions. (By the time you read this, the item by the Republic may also appear on the daily media link section of the WNBA's internet site).

Sulka pointed out that Auriemma, who has led UConn to five NCAA women’s titles and whose contract value grew to over $1 million last season, was simply out of the league’s price range.

“Econmics would never allow us to compete with the head college coaches’ salaries,” Sulka said, alluding to such other luminaries as Tennessee's Pat Summitt.

This was not news in this circle because Sulka mentioned the realities of the price structure in a conversation Sunday night in a conversation Sunday night with us, long before the Connecticut papers hit the streets.

There is some speculation that Auriemma was the anonymous source of the rumor because he might have been mad at UConn over one thing or another.

The Arizona Republic mentioned Nancy Lieberman, the Hall of Famer who played for the Mercury in the franchise’s first season in 1997 and then coached the Detroit Shock for three seasons, as a potential Mercury candidate along with two former NBA Phoenix Suns players -- guard Dan Majerle and forward Cedric Ceballos.

However, another person who might be targeted in a search is former Auburn coach Joe Ciampi, who took the Tigers to three straight Women’s Final Fours and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., in June.

Sulka seemed enlightened when Ciampi’s name was mentioned to him.

The native of upstate Pennsylvania near Scranton retired a year ago and has been looking at WNBA coaching possibilities.

“I’d be very interested in talking to them,” said Ciampi, whose longtime friend Charles Barkeley, an Auburn grad and former NBA star with the 76ers and Phoenix, lives in the city in the desert.

“Of course it shows how smart I am wanting to go from a small town in Alabama and 105 degree heat to Phoenix, where it’s over 110 degrees,” Ciampi quipped.

“But I like their team a lot and I think Diana and I would get along.”

Phoenix struggled at the outset of the season and then made a run for the playoffs that fell just short on the final weekend.

Role Model.

Sacramento’s Ticha Penecheiro is potentially sidelined for Thursday night’s Western Conference finals opener in Houston with a severe sprain of her left ankle suffered at the end of practice on Tuesday.

That will probably mean more playing time for reserve Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee star who will get a chance to play against the Comets’ Dawn Staley, whom Lawson said on Wednesday is the reason she got interested in women’s basketball.

“I was in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade when she played for the University of Virginia and they were going to three straight final fours,” Lawson recalled of the Cavaliers’ run as one of the nation’s top teams in the early 1990s.

“I never watched women’s basketball on TV or paid attention to it until then,” Lawson said.
“I started to go to UVA summer camps and they were the only basketball camps I went because I was in awe of Dawn and how she played and the things she could do with the basketball.

“She’s been a great ambassador for the game and a great player to model your game after,” said Lawson, who also does broadcast work for ESPN in the winter and was on the crew in Philadelphia two years when Temple, coached by Staley, hosted and participated in first-round/second-round games at the Liacouras Center.

Hall of Fame Weekend

It’s off to New England where we’ll be at festivities Thursday and Friday in Springfield, Mass., involving the induction of this year’s class into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

The group includes the late Sue Gunter, who made LSU a national power and died last month a year after she retired from the Tigers because of health reasons.

Hall of Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale, a former UCLA star who played for Gunter on the 1980 Olympic team that missed the Moscow games because of the U.S. boycott, and Pokey Chapman, a former player of Gunter’s at LSU who succeeded her last summer, will speak on behalf of the coaching legend.

Then it’s on to the Mohegan Sun for Saturday’s second game in the Eastern finals between the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever.

Lighting the Comets

All-Star Sheryl Swoopes, a candidate for the WNBA’s most valuable player award, on what motived the Houston Comets to return to the playoffs after most preseason projections had coach Van Chancellor’s squad missing the postseason a second consecutive time:

“When we started this season, not anybody picked the Comets to make the playoffs,” Swoopes said Wednesday. “Because of that, we use that as a motivating factor.

“Every player came in here hungry and still frustrated from not making the playoffs last year. And then not having Tina (Thompson) made other people take their games to another level,” Swoopes added.

“nd now that we’re in the playoffs, it’s a whole different season and anybody’s ballgame.”

Tina Thompson, one of the Comets’ top players, didn’t join the team until August this season after she recuperated from her childbirth.

We’ll be back late Thursday night after the first set of ceremonies in Springfield and after the results of the opening games, including Connecticut at Indiana, are known.

-- Mel

Sunday, September 04, 2005

WNBA Playoffs: Comets KO Defending Champs

By Mel Greenberg

There are a million stories in the 2005 edition of the WNBA playoffs and the Houston Comets have just become most of them.

That’s the same Houston Comets who are now playing the role of Cinderella terminators five years removed from their annual appearance as the frightful terminators who claimed the first four WNBA titles from 1997-2000.

It was a night of history in the Northwest Saturday as coach Van Chancellor’s squad completed a stunning comeback by extinguishing the no-longer-defending champion Seattle Storm, 75-58, in the deciding matchup of the best-of-three Western Conference semifinal series.

No rallies were needed in this particular game, but the victory made Houston just the second team in WNBA playoff history to survive a round that began with a loss at home and then continued with two victories on the road.

The other was the 2001 Charlotte Sting contingent in the Eastern finals who went on to eliminate the New York Liberty with two wins in Madison Square Garden.

That means all-star point guard Dawn Staley, whose return to her other job as Temple’s coach will be delayed a while longer, has become the only player or coach to be associated with both comebacks.

Ironically, Anne Donovan, the coach of the 2001 Charlotte team, was on the bench last night for the opposition.

More about Staley in a while.

The triumph advanced Houston to the best-of-three Western Conference finals, Thursday night, beginning at home against the regular season champion Sacramento Monarchs, who at home on Friday night completed a 2-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks.

The Eastern Conference finals were also set Friday night when the Connecticut Sun finished off the Detroit Shock at home in the Mohegan Sun Arena with a 2-0 sweep to advance and attempt to reach the WNBA finals for a second straight season,

The Sun, with the overall best WNBA record, will open at Indiana, Thursday night, in the Eastern Finals. The Fever, second in the East in the regular season, previously advanced to the conference finals for the first time by eliminating New York at home, last Thursday night, with a 2-0 sweep.

A year ago, Houston, which had suffered three straight first-round eliminations after the Comets’ run of championships, sat home in the postseason for the first time ever.

Veteran all-star Sheryl Swoopes struggled all during 2004, despite winning an Olympic gold medal on the Chancellor-coached USA Basketball team, and began to wonder whether the time had come to start thinking about hanging up her sneakers.

“It just wasn’t fun anymore,” Swoopes recalled in July at the All-Star game in Connecticut.

The former Texas Tech star, who holds several NCAA Women's Final Four scoring records, has regained her old touch, however, and entered the playoffs as a leading candidate for league most valuable player.

Although voting for that award from a nationwide media panel was completed before the playoffs began, Swoopes certainly looked like a campaigner Saturday night against the Storm in which she became the first player in the postseason to achieve a statistical triple double.

Swoopes had 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the field, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Not much had been expected of the Comets when forecasts were made back in the preseason, especially when it was known that Tina Thompson, who recently returned to the lineup, was going to miss most of the summer action because she was pregnant.

Thompson, who was also on the gold medal U.S. squad, as was Staley, had a game-high 16 points.

“I thought Tina Thompson played her best all year,” Chancellor said at the postgame press conference.

So a year after Lauren Jackson, who had 10 points, Saturday night, and Sue Bird, who had 12, led the dancing in Key Arena following the conquest of Connecticut in game three of the WNBA championship series, the Storm won’t even get to defend their conference playoff title.

“We just got steamrolled on our home floor and that doesn’t happen very often,” Donovan said afterwards to the media of her team’s loss. “It surprised me that we could never get a grip.”

The Staley Saga Continues

Just when Dawn Staley appears to have run out of chapters in her legendary career, new ones keep coming when least expected.

The former star of Dobbins Tech and Virginia has been on a personal glory run that began in March of 2004.

That’s when Staley, who was hired in the spring of 2000 without any previous experience to coach Temple, led her Owls to their second Atlantic Ten Conference tournament title.

Then the summer arrived and Staley was named by captains of the other sports squads as the flag bearer for the U.S. delegation at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games in Athens, Greece.

A few weeks later, she added her third gold medal to her collection.

Then her team last winter produced a gold medal season for the ages, winning another Atlantic Ten title, earning a first-ever national ranking, winning an NCAA tournament first-round game, and also setting a program record with a 25-game win streak that was cut off by Rutgers in the NCAA second round.

Then it was time to return to her summer passion in the WNBA with the Charlotte Sting and it seemed the happiness chapters were over.

Charlotte struggled all summer on the way to the worst league record and in the process Staley was prepared to endure the disappointment, perhaps even retire a year early.

Then the Houston Comets came calling on Aug. 1 in a deal that gave Staley a new opportunity to go after a WNBA title.

“The Staley deal may be one of the best trades I ever made,” Chancellor, also the Comets general manager and the only one remaining of the eight original WNBA coaches, gushed to us from Seattle late Saturday night.

“She made a couple of three-balls that were unbelievable.”

One of the treys blunted a Storm rally that had reduced its deficit to 10 points in the second half.

So now it’s on to play against Sacramento, and it is not impossible for Houston to prevail, again, especially with a home-court advantage for the opening game.

Living La Playoff Loca

In boasting about the limo ride in the previous blog, I forgot to give Sun management credit for providing the best-ever pre-game media meal for a WNBA regular season or playoff game. It might be one of the best overall, which made us recall the days of the media feed when former owner Leonard Tose ran the Eagles, and also the food provided here during the Women’s Final Four.

Of course, being involved at a casino-entertainment complex marked by numerous restaurants, enables the Sun officials to dominate.

Some of the items were cod, peel-and-eat shrimp, steamed clams, an ear of corn, a fancy cobbler pie of sorts with ice cream, a tasty New England clam chowder, and ribs among several other delights.

Normally, food is food at all these things, but the Sun did out-do themselves, although, to be fair, we have yet to make it to most of the Western Conference operations.

That’s it for now. Due to the gap before the next round begins, look for us in print in the Inquirer and at Philly.com if you can’t get your hands on a hard-copy edition and I appear to be missing in action, here.

-- Mel

Saturday, September 03, 2005

WNBA Playoffs: Sun Fries Shock; Monarchs Rule

By Mel Greenberg

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The Connecticut Sun easily found answers Friday night to any problems poised by the Detroit Shock, specifically in the closing minutes, to take a 75-67 victory in the Mohegan Sun Arena and close out their WNBA Eastern Conference playoff semifinals with a 2-0 sweep.

The triumph advanced Connecticut, the overall No. 1 seed, to next week’s best-of-three conference finals against the Indiana Fever, beginning Thursday night, in the Midwest.

The Fever closed out their semifinals series on Thursday night at home with a 2-0 sweep of the New York Liberty.

Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen, the second year pro out of Minnesota, led Connecticut with 27 points, one short of her overall career high, and consistently found ways to get to the free throw line where she was 15-for-17.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played for the Philadelphia Rage in the defunct American Basketball League in the late 1990s, had 16 points and eight rebounds. She also made the game-clinching shot, a 14-foot jumper with 21.9 seconds left to play that extended Connecticut’s slim three-point advantage to 72-67.

“Lucky, very lucky,” McWilliams-Franklin said of her feeling on the court after the shot dropped through the net. “We hit a bunch of lucky shots in Detroit and that was one lucky shot we had tonight.

“It was a play designed for me, so I had to shoot, no matter what,” McWilliams-Franklin said with a sigh of relief. “When Ruth (Riley) is out, most of their defenders keep their hands down, so I know I could shoot over them. I was worried whether it was going to get to rim or not. Not whether it had enough height.’’

Prior to the game, McWilliams-Franklin received the WNBA’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award determined by a national media panel.

The clutch basket by the WNBA veteran came on the end of a possession that began with 7-foot-2 center Margo Dydek making a key block of Detroit rookie Kara Braxton’s four-foot attempt.

Dydek was acquired by Connecticut in a draft-day deal in April with San Antonio that allowed the Silver Stars to grab rookie Katie Feenstra, who starred at Liberty University.

Former University of Connecticut star Nykesha Sales made up for an inefficient night on the offensive end – she had five points on 1-for-8 shooting from the field – by grabbing 12 rebounds.

Connecticut never trailed and led by as many as 14 points in the game after getting off to a quick start, courtesy of Whalen’s eight points in the early minutes that included a pair of 3-pointers.

However, the Sun began to fade near the finish until Dydek’s move stopped the Shock surge and Connecticut went on to erase their 1-3 effort that had occurred against the Shock in the regular season.

"No one in this locker room thought we were underdogs," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said of cautionary predictions suggesting Detroit would prevail in the series.

It’s the second straight year the Shock has received an early exit in the playoffs after capturing the 2003 championship.

Last year, the Shock was eliminated by New York in the third game on a shot at the buzzer.

“Last year was more discouraging than this year because we lost to an inferior team in the New York Liberty,” Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said. “This year, I thought Connecticut was the most consistent team all year long.”

Laimbeer was undaunted in defeat, however.

“This is our time. This is the Detroit Shock’s time,” Laimbeer said of a team that had been inconsistent after a strong start back in late May and early June.

“We believe that we are the best basketball team out there. We have a very talented group and they have to want to go out there and just take the championship. That’s how it’s going to have to be. They have to go out there and take the sucker.”

Laimbeer seemed to find several different ways to suggest in code that he wasn’t thrilled with the officiating that limited the Shock’s ability to execute its physical style of play.

Of course, even if the former NBA Detroit Piston Bad Boy was saying his team will return to fight another day, there’s always the question of whether that will be true of Laimbeer, himself, who’s name was connected during the summer with several rumors involving NBA coaching jobs, including the New York Knicks.

The Sun will return next week to fight again, and the Indiana series, featuring the Fever’s Tamika Catchings, will be quite competitive.

Thibault spoke of his team’s progression the past three years after the Sun moved here from a former existence as the Orlando Miracle.

“I’m so proud of the maturity they’ve shown,” Thibault spoke of outrebounding the WNBA’s top team on the boards and getting to the free throw line. “It says a lot.”

Sparks Number Up – Again

Out West, Sacramento continued its habit of having Los Angeles’ number after the Monarchs eliminated the Sparks, 2-0, in the conference finals for the second straight year.

Sacramento earned its best prize of the day by pulling away midway through the second half after receiving two WNBA postseason awards prior to the opening tip.

Monarchs coach John Whisenant was named coach of the year by a nationwide media panel after leading Sacramento to its first West regular season title and second best record overall with a 25-9 mark behind Connecticut’s 26-8.

Second-year pro Nicole Powell, a former Stanford star, was voted by the same panel as the WNBA’s most improved player after moving from the Charlotte Sting to Sacramento in an offseason trade.

Sacramento will meet either the former-time WNBA champion Houston Comets or the defending champion Seattle Storm for the West title in a best-of-three series.

The Comets and Storm meet in a decisive game three Saturday night in Seattle.

Whisenant received 25 of a possible 50 votes in the coach balloting.

He was followed by Connecticut’s Thibault (19), who was also last year’s runnerup to Minnesota’s Suzie McConnell Serio; Houston’s Van Chancellor (3), Indiana’s Brian Winters (1), Phoenix’ Carrie Graf (1), and New York’s Pat Coyle (1).

In the most improved category, Powell received 20 of 49 votes, followed by Seattle’s Janell Burse (13), New York’s Ann Wauters (6), Connecticut’s Taj McWilliams-Franklin (2), Phoenix’s Kamila Vodichkova (2), while Washington Mystics point guard Alana Beard, Houston center Michelle Snow, Sacramento’s DeMya Walker, a Rancocas Valley High graduate, and Connecticut’s Lindsay Whalen each received 1 vote.

Vacancy Alert

Whoever voted for Phoenix’s Carrie Graf, that’s apparently not a sentiment that was shared by Mercury management, which on Friday announced her contract would not be renewed and she would return to coaching in her native Australia.

Although the WNBA promotional machine might be tempted to run a contest in which the winner gets a chance to coach second-year pro Diana Taurasi, the Mercury will probably have other ways to go about getting a replacement, although letting Taurasi be a player-coach is not one of them.

Assistants with previous WNBA head coaching experience include San Antonio’s Brian Agler, Houston’s Carleen Thompson, New York’s Marianne Stanley, Washington’s Marynell Meadors, Minnesota’s Nancy Darsch, and Indiana’s Lin Dunn.

Houston longtime assistant Kevin Cook is another possibility, and from the broadcast wing, Nancy Lieberman, who coached the Detroit Shock, might be interested, or former UCLA all-American Ann Meyers might be approached.

Two outstanding candidates currently in collegiate retirement are former Auburn coach Joe Ciampi, and former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.

Ciampi, who comes from an Italian background, might bright the same personality mix with Taurasi that existed in her collegiate days with another person of Italian heritage – Geno Auriemma.

Of course, the trend these days is to find someone from the NBA world, so it will be interesting to see who’s name pops this time around.

Los Angeles and Charlotte made late season replacements, so if Joe Bryant is not retained by the Sparks nor Muggsy Bogues by Charlotte, that will mean at least two more openings will exist.

Living La Playoff Loca

So what person associated with sports who is seen often in the state of Connecticut popped out of a stretch limo Friday night alongside an entrance to the Mohegan Casino-Entertainment Complex to attend the Sun-Shock game?

Former UConn star Diana Taurasi?

Her former Huskies coach Geno Auriemma?

WNBA president Donna Orender?

Inquirer columnist and ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith?

Quite frankly, it was yours truly.

Before the home office accounting department reaches for the medicine cabinet, it must be noted that the reasonably-priced hotel we are working out of on the overnight provides complimentary limo service back and forth to the complex and we just couldn’t resist the temptation to take advantage.

On the other hand, it would be nice to be hooked up to the advertised free high speed internet access at the moment to finish this blog, instead of a phone connection as slow as the traffic flow we navigated in the last 100 miles.

Incidentally, several fascinating sites on the way up here along the Merritt Parkway were gas stations, whose prices were still under $3.00. I’ll let you know if that became a thing of the immediate past in the next report.

-- Mel

Friday, September 02, 2005

WNBA Playoffs: Comets survive; Indiana advances

By Mel Greenberg

Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor has merited WNBA coach –of-the-year consideration for bringing his former four-time championship team (1997-2000) into the playoffs when not much was expected of it back in the preseason.

Considering the other part of his title as the Comets general manager, perhaps Chancellor might earn the league’s executive-of-the-year award if such a postseason honor existed.

“Dawn Staley made the trade look unbelievable,” Chancellor said Thursday night from the Northwest after his Comets stayed alive by outlasting the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm, 67-64, to even the Western Conference semifinals series at 1-1 and extending the matchup into a third and deciding game on Saturday night.

Staley, who also coaches Temple, grabbed a key steal in the closing seconds and Janeth Arcain converted the possession with two foul shots to enable Houston to live another day.

“That’s why we made the trade,” Chancellor said. “Dawn Staley inspired us to a win tonight.”

The former Virginia star and Dobbins Tech sensation steered Chancellor’s United States Olympic squad to a gold medal in Athens, Greece, a year ago with Comets all-stars Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes among her teammates.

As autumn arrived, Chancellor had interest in acquiring Staley, who was then a free agent.

However, she decided to remain with the Charlotte Sting, which went on to struggle with what became the league’s worst record.

Houston, meanwhile, was in a tight race for a playoff spot and Chancellor was looking for a point guard leader to push the Comets down the stretch.

On August 1, he got his wish when Charlotte agreed to a deal in which he would also get the Sting’s No. 2 draft pick along with Staley in exchange for Kristen Rasmussen, Adrienne Goodson and Houston’s No. 1 pick.

In Thursday night’s game, Swoopes, a candidate for league MVP, scored 20 points, including 14 in the second half as the Comets rallied from a 10-point deficit early in the final period.

Thompson scored 13 points, Arcain scored 12, and Staley had four steals in the contest.

Seattle was led by Betty Lennox, the MVP of last year’s finals, who had 16 points. Lauren Jackson, suffering with a bad back, added 14 points, and Janell Burse scored 12.

Fever Takes the Next Step

Indiana had already made a major move by finishing second in the East and getting to the playoffs for the second time in the six-year history of the Fever franchise.

On Thursday night, Indiana completed a 2-0 sweep and brought the New York Liberty to another unhappy postseason ending with a 58-50 victory.

How many ways has misfortune played a hand in New York’s demise in its playoff history?

This time, the injury to center Ann Waulters with a broken hand at the start of the playoff stretch drive ultimately hurt the Liberty’s inside game once the series with Indiana began.

Still, it’s a 50-50 proposition that New York might have prevailed with her healthy, although there remains the possibility the Liberty might have been able to grab second place and get home-court advantage in the conference semifinals.

On the other hand, home court wasn’t quite good enough for New York in the opening game, but was plenty fine for Indiana, Thursday night, as the Fever advanced to the Eastern finals against whoever wins between the Connecticut Sun and Detroit Shock.

Connecticut can close out its semifinals with a win Friday night, and the Sacramento Monarchs can do likewise at home in the West with a win over the Los Angeles Sparks.

Former Tennessee all-American Tamika Catchings led Indiana with 19 points and 12 rebounds, and Natalie Williams, heading towards retirement, added 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Kelly Miller also scored in double figures for the Fever with 11 points.

New York was led by Becky Hammon’s 14 points, and La’Keshia Frett scored 12.

Indiana led by as many as 14 points before a Liberty rally fell short down the stretch.

And the Envelope Please

You may have seen this news elsewhere over at WNBA.COM, but if not, in awards announced Thursday by the league:

Seattle guard Sue Bird claimed the Cascade Dish & Assist Award, her first assist title, after the former University of Connecticut star and 2002 overall No. 1 draft pick averaged 5.9 dishes this season.

Bird’s career assist average of 5.9 is the second highest in WNBA history, trailing only Sacramento’s Ticha Penicheiro’s 6.6 assists per game, and in just four seasons in the league, she is already ranked eighth in total career assists with 772, according to the league’s press release.

Indiana’s Tamika Catchings won the defensive Player of the Year Award presented by Tampax, after receiving 35 of a possible 50 votes from a national panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.

In the balloting, Catchings dominated with 35 votes, followed by Houston’s Sheryl Swoopes (7), Los Angeles’ Lisa Leslie (7), Connecticut’s Katie Douglas (2), Sacramento’s Yolanda Griffith (2), and Connecticut’s Margo Dydek (1).

Catching and Swoopes also dominated the first-ever All-Defensive team voting as selected by the WNBA’s 13 head coaches, who picked first and second team members by position, but weren’t allowed to vote for their own players.

The duo were joined on the first team by Sacramento’s Griffith (17 points), Indiana guard Tully Bevilaqua (16 points), and Connecticut guard Katie Douglas (13 points). The WNBA All-Defensive Second Team was comprised of Leslie (12 points), Washington guard Alana Beard (11 points), Detroit guard Deanna Nolan (10 points), Seattle forward Lauren Jackson (8 points) and Connecticut forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin (7 points).

On Friday, three more honors will be announced: The Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award, the Coach of the Year award, and the Most Improved Player.

With all that said, it’s on to Connecticut, gas prices and all, for Friday night’s action.

-- Mel

Thursday, September 01, 2005

WNBA Playoffs: Dawn Looks for Daylight

By Mel Greenberg

Houston Comets All-Star point guard Dawn Staley has been in this spot before.

In 2001, her former Charlotte Sting team was down 0-1 in the Eastern best-of-three semifinals after surrendering a lead late in the game to the New York Liberty.

But the Sting found a way to prevail in the next two games in New York and went on to become the only team in the history of the WNBA playoffs, now in year No. 9, to drop a home game and then recover to win the next two on the road.

Ironically, the coach of Charlotte that year was Anne Donovan, who will be on the opposing side Thursday night with the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm trying to prevent Staley and her new Houston teammates from staying alive to go after that achievement.

A win for the Comets extends the series into Saturday. A loss in the best-of-three matchups advances the Storm one level closer to returning to the finals.

In the world of Dawn Staley, life is an ongoing light switch that quickly flips her from one stage to the next.

Shortly after Charlotte fell to the Los Angeles Sparks at the Staples Center on the West Coast in the championship finals in 2001, Staley responded to a complex question from one reporter by saying:

“Right now, I’m the coach of Temple. I changed hats when the final buzzer sounded.”

That’s what will happen again Thursday night or Saturday if Houston is eliminated.

Staley will quickly transform from her summer emphasis, much of which was spent with the lowly Charlotte squad prior to last month’s trade, to grabbing the reins at Temple, where her Owls will looking for an encore performance to a season that saw them earn their first-ever national ranking and set a ton of program records that included a 25-game win streak.

Life was a little calmer in the home office this summer in Philadelphia, while Staley has been performing her WNBA role, which will probably come to an end after next season.

For the first time since she joined the coaching ranks in the spring of 2000, Staley did not have to issue a "help wanted ad" to fill vacancies on her staff when an assistant had departed for opportunities elsewhere.

Among Staley's veterans who will welcome her back to North Broad Street to greet her sooner or later will be senior center Candice Dupree, who was on the gold-medal winning United States squad at the World University Games in Turkey last month.

Although having been with Houston a few weeks, Staley was able to help the Comets return to the playoffs after the team was on the postseason sidelines last summer for the first time.

Houston, of course, won the first four WNBA titles and challenged for the next two until being eliminated in the West.

Fighting the Fever.

The New York Liberty are not sick, but coach Pat Coyle needs to find a way to avoid being overcome by Fever a second time, Thursday night.

Specifically, it’s the Indiana Fever who will be out to eliminate the Liberty and win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.

New York has had a history of comebacks in the playoffs after dropping series openers, but in all those situations the Liberty has had the comforts of Madison Square Garden and its huge fan base to get the job done.

It doesn’t help the Liberty that the taller and more athletic Fever has dominated regular season play with 3-1 records the last three summers after New York, one of the eight original WNBA squads in 1997. Indiana lost to New York the first three seasons after the Fever joined the league in 2000.

The Liberty have found ways to stay alive before, the most dramatic of which was when former all-star guard Teresa Weatherspoon’s mid-court shot at the buzzer against Houston won the second game of the 1999 finals before the Comets claimed the series the next day.

Shock Absorbers

The Connecticut Sun helped make the second set of conference semifinals the night of the heavweights by capturing a road win over the Detroit Shock that had mastered the WNBA’s top team, 3-1, in their Eastern Conference regular season series.

The Sun ran on high octane all night in the Motor City on the way to a 73-62 victory.

The Western Conference champion Sacramento Monarchs escaped danger in Los Angeles by outlasting the Sparks, 75-72.

The winners return home now, each having two chance to close out their respective series, beginning Friday night.

In the Connecticut game, the Sun opened a 16-point lead in the first half, only to have Detroit erase the deficit.

Had Detroit prevailed, it would have been the second biggest comeback in playoff history after Minnesota’s rally from a 17-point deficit against Los Angeles in the opening game of the 2003 Western semifinals.

Midwest observers

Watching the playoffs with special interest are coach Dave Cowens and other officials of the Chicago nickname-to-come franchise, which will begin play next summer.

After existing teams protect five or six players on their rosters, not counting free agents who won’t be part of the mix, the new Chicago team sometime this winter will make its first personnel acquisitions off those other rosters.

And that’s it from here until the results from Thursday night are in. We’ll be on the scene in casino-land, Friday night.

-- Mel