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.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sweet homecoming for Rutgers' Pondexter

By Kate Burkholder

NEW YORK -- Maybe it was the sea of red Rutgers t-shirts that washed over the Madison Square Garden crowd, or the sprinkling of the No. 23 orange jerseys.

Maybe it was the signs or the chants.

But whatever hint was needed to realize it, it became evident that the biggest story coming out of the world’s most famous arena earlier this afternoon was the East Coast homecoming of Phoenix Mercury rookie Cappie Pondexter.

In support of the rookie – making her return to the tri-state area for the first time since being selected second overall by Phoenix in the April WNBA draft and graduating from the State University of New Jersey in May -- the local fans showed up in large numbers to welcome home the girl they followed like their own for the last four years.

“A bunch of us had lunch before [the game], and I think when the schedule came out and this was a weekend game, it was a given that we all would come to see her,” said Diana Dloughy, a long-time Rutgers season ticket holder and member of the Cagers booster club. “Somebody took a picture last night [in Connecticut] when we told her how many people would be coming to see her, and she just had this big smile.”

Dloughy and the throng of Pondexter’s RU supporters were never far when the Scarlet Knights traveled in seasons past, and it was no different this time around, as handfuls of Cager members, Rutgers students, and Pondexter’s former coaches, teammates, and staff members comprised a sizeable portion of the crowd – even as they rooted for the visitors in Phoenix’s 94-88 overtime win at the Garden.

“Cappie loves the game, she’s an entertainer, and she loves going out there and putting on a show,” Dloughy said. “Some of these people have been watching her for four years, five years really (Pondexter redshirted her freshman season) and so it’s good to see her succeed. For some of us it’s almost like watching our own daughter out there.

“We’re really proud of her.”

Dealing with some tendonitis in her knee and the task of playing in three cities in four days, the recently-named member of the Western Conference All-Star team started off slow in her homecoming game and was, by her own admission, not feeling 100-percent.

Pondexter was kept in single-digits until the final minutes of the third quarter, but came alive down the stretch to finish with 22 points on 8-of-19 shooting and added six rebounds.

The Mercury had trailed New York for much of the game until coming back to force overtime and then pulling away in the extra period.

“I wasn’t at my best at all, but all that matters is who wins and who loses at the end of the day, and today we were able to win,” Pondexter said as she iced her knees in the locker room after the game. “I’m glad we were able to get this win, we gutted it out and made the weekend road trip worth it.”

Asked if she heard the chaotic chanting of her name that met her at pre-game introductions, all Pondexter could do was smile.

“Oh, I heard them, I definitely heard them,” she said, adding that she planned to have dinner with her old Rutgers teammates and coaches later on in the evening.

After battling through her early struggles, it was Pondexter’s second-effort lay-up with 1:20 to go in regulation that cut the Liberty lead to just one, before the rookie attempted a three-point shot the next time down the floor.

Her shot rimmed out, but the miss was put back up by teammate Diana Taurasi to again trim the New York edge to one. The game was tied at 80 with 56 seconds to play, and in a late timeout, Pondexter held up one finger and told her teammates “one shot,” acting more like the leader she carved herself into at RU instead of a first year player on a talented team.

Pondexter finally climbed over the 20-point mark in the overtime period, as the Mercury were finally able to take over the game at the same time that New York’s standout point guard Becky Hammon left with a leg injury.

With Pondexter at the line with 15 seconds left in overtime, she nailed both to lock up the victory for the now 8-10 Mercury, also ending Phoenix’s 0-10 dry spell when playing in the Empire State.

Pondexter’s 22 points was good for second best on the squad, as Taurasi was unstoppable with her career-high 36-point effort.

After the game, the former Connecticut star spoke highly of her young backcourt companion.

“Cappie’s great,” Taurasi said. “We’ve known each other for five or six years and played on the Junior National Team together, so when she came to Phoenix I was very excited. I’m just so excited because to have someone like that on the court with me who just wants to win, it’s incredible.”

Pondexter’s 21.9 points-per-game average is now good for third in the league, behind only fellow rookie Seimone Augustus’ 22.7 and Taurasi’s 22.4, as Pondexter is still getting used to the more offensive-geared approach of first-year Mercury head coach Paul Westhead.

“I really didn’t observe any transition period with Cappie,” Westhead said. “She was new to the team, I was new to the team. I think she had maybe 10 days of transition in training camp, and there it became evident that she was going to be a key player for us. It’s like she’s been doing this for a long time.”

Westhead’s up-tempo, run-and-gun offense is also light years away from that of the defensive mastermind she played under for the last four seasons.

“Coach [C. Vivian] Stringer always emphasized defense, and out here it’s definitely a different coaching style,” Pondexter said. “We make sure to get those quick transition baskets and after a team scores we come back at you offensively, so that kind of coexists with my game because I love to play offense.

“It’s what I’m talented in and it’s my main job now so that’s kind of exciting.”

And how about finding time to chat with her old coach?

“Once a week,” Pondexter said. Often enough for Stringer to do some of the nit-picking she did while Pondexter was her player.

“She’s always going to be Coach,” Pondexter said. “But that’s the good thing about her.”

The guard will now stay in New York until All-Star festivities begin mid-week, with Pondexter set to compete in the skills challenge and suit up as a reserve for the game Wednesday evening at 7:30 at MSG.

“I’m not the least bit surprised at how Cappie’s doing,” added Richard Kent, Rutgers alum and publisher of the Big East Women’s Basketball Report. “I think right now she’s a Top-10 WNBA player, and Rookie of the Year honors will be between her and Augustus.

“If you look at the top five scorers around the league, four of them, Taurasi, Cappie, Lauren Jackson, and Augustus are all under the age of 25, so it shows that the league is young and vibrant going forward. I’m happy for Cappie but not so happy for the loss that Rutgers is going to take.”

With a few days rest hopefully in her future before gearing up for the second half of her first season, Pondexter was still her same old self -- just appreciating the chance she gets to play basketball every day.

“You work so hard all your life for this one moment, so it’s something that I cherish,” she said. “I’m not content with where I’m at, I’m just going to keep working hard.”

Nor is she satisfied with the progress so far of her sixth-place team.

“I’m not content at all,” she said. “We’re trying to get back to .500, and there are a couple games that we definitely could have pulled out so we’re not content at all. We’re here trying to make a playoff run and taking it one game at a time.”

Now there’s one homecoming down, and one big one still to go.

That one will come August 1, when Pondexter makes her return to her hometown of Chicago, for the Mercury’s first road game against the expansion Sky.

“Haven’t been there yet,” Pondexter said. “But, yeah, I’m from Chicago. I’m a Bulls fan – for life.”

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