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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.

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

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