Womhoops Guru

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

Thursday, August 31, 2006

WNBA Finals: Shock Seek Rebound(s) -- Or Else

By Mel Greenberg

Can the Sacramento Monarchs do it again?
Will the Detroit Shock produce the resiliency that helped carry them to the Eastern Conference title for the first time since 2003?

Those were the two major theme questions at Thursday’s practice session in the Detroit Pistons’ practice facility after the WNBA defending-champion Monarchs surprised the Shock, 95-71, Wednesday night at the nearby Palace in the opener of the best-of-five finals.

It was not the result that was stunning, but it was the way it was so easily achieved over a Detroit team that had done likewise to the Connecticut Sun a few days earlier to capture the East.

Sacramento coach John Whisenant glanced at the NBA championship banners on the wall that have been won by the Pistons and the WNBA banner won in 2003 by the Shock and assumed that there was enough local pride to help Bill Laimbeer’s bunch put up a better fight Friday night when the series resumes.

It then heads West for Sunday’s third game and will remain in Sacramento for a fourth game, if necessary, on Wednesday. If the series goes the distance, the fifth game will return to Michigan, but will be played downtown at the Joe Louis Arena because of a previously committed event at the Palace.

“They understand it’s a whole new ball game and they’re going to come with their guns loaded,” Whisenant said looking to Friday night’s contest. “That’s what you have to expect.

“Now, can we deal with it? We’ve got one of those banners also. I also have a drill sergeant leading my attack up the hill in Yolanda (Griffith).

If any of our players are not paying attention, she’ll make them pay attention, I think,” the Sacramento coach continued.

“It’s still going to come down to can we do our stuff better than they do their stuff or vice versa,” he said. “Obviously, the first game we won. I’m hoping we’ll come back and repeat our kind of intensity and expect that they will meet it with a great deal more determination and it will be a battle royal.”

It wasn’t much of a scrum at all Thursday night with the Monarchs making shots all over the place – Kara Lawson set a finals record with six three-pointers – and the Shocks’ center Ruth Riley and forward Swin Cash — rendered totally ineffective.

Cash, a former Connecticut star, was scoreless and was benched by Laimbeer for most of the contest.

“I hope they (Cash and Riley) come with more energy and more determination,” Laimbeer said. “They just got physically pushed around on the inside, and they have to step their game up, mentally and physically.”

The win was the second straight time Sacramento opened the finals away from home with a victory after beating Connecticut last season in Uncasville.

Although Wednesday’s game made the Monarchs look like an offensive machine, the overall effort just made things extra comfortable for the Sacramento coach who explained that his team has been built to succeed on nights when baskets might be tougher to come by.

“We try to feel like if we play really tough defense and control the boards on both ends that we can hang around in our bad shooting times until we figure out how to score and still have a chance to win,” Whisenant said. “It’s a lot harder. But most playoff games come down to that.

“We’ve had some easy wins, but we don’t want to get over-confident with that. We just try to build a system where we feel we’re going to have a hard shooting night.”

Lawson was joined in the perimeter effort by former Stanford star Nicole Powell, who had four three-pointers. The former Tennessee star, who has done commentary for ESPN-TV during the women’s collegiate season, was miked for Wednesday night’s game.

“Maybe I should have interviewed myself,” Lawson said with a grin. “That might have been interesting.”

At the beginning of the season, Sacramento had a slew of personnel problems that made outsiders wonder whether the Monarchs’ defense of their championship would be short-lived.

Griffith, 36, was struggling with knee problems. DeMya Walker gave birth to a child in the offseason and was recovering from the effects of her pregnancy. Lawson had a mysterious illness sapping her energy that kept her sidelined until halfway through the season.

There were other issues along the way with Whisenant dealing with the death of his mother and also involved as a candidate for the then-vacant Sacramento Kings head coaching job.

Griffith said she had some doubts early on about returning to the finals. But then everything started to come together as Lawson and Walker got back into playing shape.

“We weren’t playing as a team,” Griffith said. “Now we’re playing as a team. We got that swagger back we didn’t have.

“Right now we’re just trying to leave everything on the floor. We’re not thinking about next week. Next game. We’re just trying to think about right now.”

The Olympic and all-star center may have had some internal questions but Whisenant said he knew from the outset in May a happier ending existed in the team’s future.

“I knew what was wrong with us,” he said. “I knew why we were stuggling. We told our team from day one, we would struggle without Yolanda’s knees, without DeMya, and with Kara overweight and soft.

“Those are three major players in our system and they weren’t right,” Whisenant said. “So we were trying to stay afloat, stay competitive, stay in the hunt for a playoff berth without those three even in there or producing at our normal level.”

Help for Griffith and Walker have been provided off the bench by Erin Buescher, the WNBA’s most improved player, and Rebekkah Brunson, a former Georgetown star recruited by Pat Knapp before he later became the coach of Penn after her graduation a year ago.

One Monarchs player who is getting an extra treat in this season’s finals is Kristin Haynie, a former Michigan State star who helped lead the Spartans to the 2005 NCAA title game and celebrated her homecoming Wednesday night with five steals.

“It’s great that we got a chance to come back here to Detroit so a lot of family and friends could come see us play live,” Haynie said. “A lot of times they have to watch on TV because California is so far away. So I feel very blessed to come back here.”

Haynie’s former coach at Michigan State, Joanne P. McCallie, does some commentary for local Detroit broadcasts of Shock games. She wasn’t at the game, Wednesday night, but Haynie thought she might be at the Palace Friday night.

Meanwhile, Detroit was trying to move forward and get over what seemed like a bad hangover from the drubbing the Shock took Wednesday night.

“Right now, we’re focused on Friday,” Cash said. “We understand we have to win at home. We cleaned up some things this morning.”

All-Star guard Katie Smith, who came from Minnesota to Detroit in a late-season trade a year ago, explained what must be done to even the series.

“’Sac is a good team,” the former Ohio State star said. “They’re a team. Not only individually do they have good talent, but they play so well together.

“It’s keeping them in front,” the converted point guard discussed the defensive strategy to stop the Monarchs. “It’s a team effort. They’re very deep and they’re going to keep rolling them in.

“It has to become a pride factor. You’re not getting this shot. I’m going to make you earn it.’” Smith said of the mental chess match on the court. “It’s kind of a game within a game. I think it starts there.

“Obviously, as a team, you can’t allow anybody to drive. You gotta help, you gotta scramble and not stop. You have to keep rotating and rotating and hopefully get a defensive board.”

Smith also discussed the motivational factors of Friday night.

“They’re preparing it like it’s do or die,” she said. “I hope we view it as `Tomorrow could be our last game of the season.’ I hope that’s how we go out and approach because it really kind of is.

“If we don’t go out and win this one, I tell you what, it’s going to be a war trying to get a win in Sac if we don’t win and tie this thing up, 1-1.

“Is it doable? By all means I think we have to ability to get it done,” Smith said. “Mentally, we have to come ready to go. Physically, that will come. Mentally, we have to know what we’re doing at both ends of the floor, and just want it and bring it for 40 minutes.”

-- Mel

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

WNBA Finals: Monarchs Stun Shock in Opener

By Mel Greenberg

_ The Sacramento Monarchs stormed into the Detroit Shock’s Palace Wednesday night and dispatched coach Bill Laimbeer’s team in a lop-sided royal flush, 95-71, to easily capture the WNBA championship series opener.

Near the city associated with Motown music, the two teams spun a few records, most of which were helped by the defending WNBA champions’ ability to quickly erase home-court disadvantage for the second straight season.

This one was decided much quicker by the Monarchs then last season’s 69-65 triumph over the Connecticut Sun in Uncasville.

Holding a competitive 26-20 advantage at the end of the first quarter, Sacramento blitzed its way to a 53-38 halftime lead and went on to increase the margin by as many 24 points during the final 20 minutes of action.

“It’s a little disappointing to watch us not perform out there,” Laimbeer bemoaned his team’s lack of effort only three days after the Shock had been on the high end of a one-sided encounter that saw the Shock rout Connecticut to take their first Eastern Conference crown since 2003.

“Twenty-four turnovers,” Laimbeer continued about his team’s pile of mistakes that went beyond taking care of the basketball. “You can’t win a basketball game in the WNBA finals making 24 turnovers.”

A glance at the Shock scoring might indicate a decent night on offense with Cheryl Ford scoring 25 points, Katie Smith collecting 21, and Deana Nolan contributing 14.

But that was easily overcome with Kara Lawson’s 22 points, Nicole Powell’s 21, and 17 points each from Yolanda Griffith and DeMya Walker.

Powell, a former Stanford star, and Kara Lawson, who starred at Tennessee, were exceptionally deadly on the perimeter with Powell connecting on 4 of 7 three-point attempts, and Lawson firing 6 of 8.

The Monarchs set a team scoring record in the finals and Ford’s total was an individual mark for finals competition. Lawson’s treys set a finals record of four set, breaking the previous mark of three by many players and Smith’s four treys in the first half set a mark that was previously held by many players at three.

The combined 166 points eclipsed a finals production of 161 when the Shock beat the Los Angeles Sparks, 83-78 during the 2003 finals, which was then a best-of-three affair.

The Shock and Monarchs combo offense also produced 91 points in the first half, erasing the 79 scored in that same 2003 game on Sept. 16.

The attendance here was announced at 9.581, far less than the 17,000 plus and 22,000 plus totals that jammed the Palace in 2003 when Detroit rallied from a first-game setback in Los Angeles to complete a worst-to-first turnaround over two seasons.

Also missing Wednesday night in almost everything except her uniform was former University of Connecticut star Swin Cash, who on Sunday matched Smith’s 16 points in beating the Sun.

Cash, the star of the 2003 season for the Shock, went scoreless Wednesday night with an 0-for-2 effort from the field in just 11 minutes, 16 seconds of action.

When a reporter in the postgame press conference mentioned Cash not being a factor in the second quarter, Laimbeer quickly interrupted, “Wasn’t a factor in the first quarter on, either.

“She showed up to play a basketball game, she didn’t show up to win a basketball game. It’s just one of those things where she wasn’t into it and we decided not to play her.”

Cash, in the Shock lockerroom, claimed Laimbeer had told her during the first half of one of the reasons she was benched and she said she was letting him know, “that it wasn’t my missed assignment.”

The Pittsburgh native said the benching was the first she had experienced in her career but added, “I’m a professional. I come to work every single day, whether I’m on the court or on the bench. On the bench I trust my teammates on the court and do what I can do to help my team win.”

Sacramento coach John Whisenant was obviously pleased to steal another finals opener.

“I’m tickled to death that we got home court from the Shock, but that’s only one game, and we’ve got to win some more, somewhere. Our goal was to win a game here, and we don’t want to quit at one, and we know Friday will be a war. They will come with us with all their ammo.”

The Monarchs have been firing away with five straight playoff wins without a loss since struggling down the stretch of the regular season. They opened defense of their Western Conference crown with a sweep of Houston and then swept the Sparks with the second game in that series occurring in Anaheim, Calf., which was Los Angeles’ home court for that particular game.

Powell spoke of the way her team has been on fire since the playoffs got under way.

“All of a sudden we got out there against Houston on their home court and it was just unbelievable . We just took off. We were up by 20 or 30 points in the first half, and it was kind of the same thing (as Wednesday night) where every single person was ready to play, ready to fight.”

Smith concurred on Sacramento’s energy and what her team must do Friday to avoid going down 0-2 in the series before it heads West Sunday for Game 3. A fourth game would be played next Wednesday and if the series goes the distance, it would return to the area, but at the Joe Louis Arena downtown due to a prevous event scheduled at the Palace.

“One thing they bring every night is effort and energy,” Smith said of the Monarchs. “You know, they stole this one, but you know, it’s a series and we’ll get right back on Friday night.”

Detroit couldn’t do anything right, according to Laimbeer.

“Everything we talked about before the start of the game, almost to the exact thing, there’s probably at least ten things that we listed that we had to take care of and work on in this ball game, and eight of them, we didn’t do it,” the former NBA Detroit Pistons star of the “Bad Boys” championship era said.

“That’s just effort. That’s just desire. That’s wanting it more than the other team, or even wanting it as bad as the other team. Tonight we didn’t compete on the level that we needed to, and we got stomped. We won’t make many excuses. We have none.”

In 2003, Detroit lost a similar lop-sided encounter against Los Angeles, but Laimbeer afterwards was quite confident his team could rally with two wins at home.

Now, the dynamic is a bit different.

“In a five game series, you’re able to lose one game and still have an opportunity to recover,” Laimbeer explained. “In a three-game series, it wasn’t so great.

“Before we win three games, we have to win one, and that’s our focus. You have to win one game first. And I told (his players) that this was going to be the hardest game because the visiting team focuses so hard on winning the first game,” he continued.

“They are closeted up in the hotel. There’s no distractions. They know their task. They have to win one game and they came very focused and ready to play,” Laimbeer added.

“We have to come with the same energy in Game 2. We have to win Game 2 or we’re in a world of trouble.”

-- Mel

WNBA Finals: Afternoon Edition Prior to Game One

By Mel Greenberg

SUBURBAN DETROIT _ Yes, the Guru has made it out here for the opening leg, but won't be heading West. That's because that phase of the best-of-five series could create travel complications in trying to get back East in time for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductions in Springfield, Mass., involving Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma, one of our Philly guys, along with Charles Barkeley, who used to be one of our Philly guys, and several others.

The reason the daeline is ambiguous is because,well, we are not quite sure where we are right now, other than our trusty GPS (Garmin Nuvi 350 for the curious) got us from the airport to our hotel, which is also the WNBA headquarters operation, at a very nice rate, I might add.

The designation says Troy, but about three other location indicators appeared as we drove off the ramp from the interstate.

We do know a few hours from now, we'll be a few miles away in Auburn Hills, Mich., at the Palace to bring blog coverage of the opening game between the Detroit Shock and Sacramento Monarchs.

But, since we are currently charging the ipod, GPS, cell phone, and a few other devices, we thought we'd check in with another tale from the road.

It begins this morning with a nice greeting transmitted to our blackberry (which is not being charged at the moment) from our young associate Kate Burkholder telling us to have fun in Detroit, even though we may never get to actually see the Motor City.

But I won't assume anything. In 2003 during the 'tweener day, we were invited to join the group at a then-woeful Detroit Tigers game where Swin Cash threw out the first ball and then we all spent the rest of the night in a luxury suite.

But I mention Kate's greeting as an embarking point because she's sent such a message at the start of several previous journeys.

And I also do it to make the point that as a precise writer, she has never said, have fun "on the way" to such and such, because she knows better. The exception is our road trips by auto where she has a choice of 350 playlists of music to select and also can do some of the driving with the computerized female voice on the GPS giving directions.

And today was such an occasion of not having fun on the way here because the Guru was declared a criminal by the TSA folks at USA Airways during the security check-in.

Yes, apparently the very same headache pills in tiny gel capsules that went through three airports without any problem in the same bag exactly one day after the most recent warning alert was raised, didn't past muster today (being Wednesday for the calendar-challenged).

Now, this is curious on several fronts. On that particular trip we flew Southwest. And we've noticed that the only time we've been randomly stopped flying USA Air is immediately following a previous trip in which we used Southwest.

So, we suspect a bit of profiling is going on here because of US Air's status as a rapidly diminishing airline flying out of the City of Brotherly Love.

Then, again, if they toss the pills, and considering other situations, such as the wandering baggage epsiodes, they can now boast themselves as offering customers "the headache you'll never forget."

Which brings us to the landing part of the trip. Due to confusing signs pointing the direction of baggage claim, it would have been easier to be a rat running through a maze. Maybe that's why the Shock wins a lot here, they driving the visitors dizzy before they even meet.

Of course, as we got dizzier until we found the right place, and we had no cure, because that was deprived at the front end of the trip.

Next came a small episode involving one of our rental car companies that provides express pickup service -- except when we got off the shuttle bus, a car was not available.

Now, what would be your immediate reaction, Guru fans?

You land in the Motor City and the one thing that there suddenly is a shortage of happens to be -- you guessed it -- cars.

Not to worry, though. Before our blood could boil, one appeared.

So we plugged in the GPS, which immediately knew where we were, if we did not. And we plugged in the ipod for the half-hour trip out here.

For you local folks back East, the experience would be like landing in Philadelphia to see a game in Trenton, 30 miles away, although at least you would pass center city on the way North.

But the room is nice, access to concierge is right across the hall, and if Christina the planner from the WNBA appears soon with my parking pass, everything will be fine.

Meanwhile, speaking of Ms. Burkholder, watch this space Friday morning for a special annoucement involving a new milestone in her career. The act has already been executed but will not become public until then.

And you Rutgers fans of her work will be pleased, but it does not involve the sport that causes you to visit the Guru here.

And speaking of visits, Kate did exactly that on Tuesday to Guru World Headquarters, where she was well received by the highest levels of Inquirer newsroom management, including sports department management.

So on that mysterious note, we're going to check around and see who's in the house and we'll be back with more serious stuff tonight. Maybe, if Kate reads this and is so inclined, she'll give you her own impressions as her summer comes to a close.

You have to give her credit as the new SI-style jinks. While working on her first paid freelance magazine assignments, Suzie McConnell Serio was not longer coach of the Minnesota Lynx a week after the interview, Katie Douglas got injured after Kate's pre-game interview before the Washington game, and as for the Connecticut Sun, well on the whole, we'd rather be siting in Big Bubba's Barbeque in Uncasville, right now.

But we'll make do. Maybe Shock assistant coach Cheryl Reeve will remember she's from the Philly area.

So that's it until a few hours from now.

-- Mel

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: The Sun Sets Early Again

Guru's Note: Erin Semagin Damio, the Northeastern student-athlete who made her blog debut for us, Saturday night, offers a portrait of team self-reflection and overall disappointment after the Detroit Shock ruined the Connecticut Sun's effort to reach the WNBA Finals a third straight season.

By Erin Semagin Damio

. -- Katie Douglas stayed in the locker room longer than almost anyone else.

After a brutal 24-point loss to the Detroit Shock in the conference finals, the Connecticut Sun players were somber and disappointed at another abridged end to their season.

Douglas, coping on the court for the second straight day with a hairline fracture in her right heel, had played 28 minutes in Sunday’s loss.

Probably, more than anyone, the former Purdue star wanted to leave and go home, ice her foot, and try her best to forget about another disappointing end to what had otherwise been a magnificent summer, especially for her.

But Douglas, whose play was accentuated by becoming the MVP of the All-Star game, stayed and talked patiently with reporters until Sun management closed the locker room.

“It’s numb,” Douglas said when asked about how her foot felt. “But my whole body’s numb right now.”

Most of the Connecticut team was feeling pretty numb after missing out on the chance to compete for a WNBA championship in the title round for a third straight season.

The team went 1-5 against Detroit this year, but none of the losses seemed quite so tough as Sunday’s. The 24-point loss was the worst loss the Sun has suffered on its home court.

Connecticut’s coach, Mike Thibault, said on Saturday night after the Sun tied the series, “It’s do or die time.”

He was right, but somehow the Sun weren’t able to translate that message into the handling the Shock. They had trouble breaking the Detroit defense and getting the ball inside. At times, they also seemed to lack the confidence that produced the best overall record over two regular seasons.

“We were definitely out of sync, and you could see it,” Douglas said. “We’re usually a team that can keep our composure and fight through adversity, but tonight Detroit made all the big plays.”

“I think flustered is the best way to describe how we were playing,” Lindsay Whalen said. “I don’t know what it was.”

That feeling was equal in the stands among the Sun faithful who were focused all season on another shot in the championship series at that elusive WNBA title.

Connecticut’s fans, who were exuberant at the beginning of the game, had that energy slowly drained as the Shock overpowered the Sun.

For most of the first half, they offered their vocal support as loud as they had the past several months. But as the Sun began to slip from contention, the fans gradually switched over to reacting loudly to referee calls, until finally, facing a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter, they began to trickle out of the arena.

It was a late game on a Sunday night, and those Sun fans who stayed until the clock expired were stung further by having to watch the celebratory moment when Detroit donned Eastern Conference champion t-shirts and hats and shouted with joy.

All-Star Nykesha Sales, who has led the Sun in scoring for every season except 2006, reverted to her recent shooting slump. She was 0-for-5 from the field and finished the game with four rebounds, three assists, and no points.

“This year not being able to get to the finals is going to sting a lot more, because we felt that we had the right pieces to the puzzle this year,” Sales said. “It is going to be a little more difficult to get over.”

Sales said that she does not have plans to play internationally during the off-season.

The former University of Connecticut star will have a lot of time this winter to dwell on the loss and get hungry for 2007.

“It’s been kind of a tough year for me personally,” Sales said. “I guess things like that happen. It’s just never happened to me before.”

Taj McWilliams-Franklin has been considering retiring for the past few years and described her plans for next year as being “up in the air.” She plans on playing internationally during the winter in Russia and Korea, and she is also building a house in Texas with her husband, Reggie, whose term in the U.S. Army will be up in January.

When McWilliams-Franklin left the game, she saluted towards the fans, who she said were "amazing."

Douglas plans to try to rest and get healthy, now that she has the time. She’s hoping to avoid surgery, but says she’ll go through with it if that’s what she needs.

“If we had beaten Detroit, it would have been a better ending to the season, but I’m going to get a lot of rest now, so I’m not worried physically about how I feel,” Douglas said.

“I’m just frustrated and disappointed that no matter if I played or not, this team wouldn’t be able to achieve what we worked so hard for. I can’t tell you honestly if it would hurt more if I had to sit there the entire time and watch. I’m not second-guessing what I did to be able to get out there and enjoy my team,” she continued.

Douglas' injury occurred the week before in the last minute of Connecticut's win over the Washington Mystics here that captured the conference seminfinals.

After her situation was made known the following morning, she had been declared doubtful for the rest of the playoffs and her absence certainly was a factor in the Sun's opening loss to the Shock in Detroit.

But she returned to action, Saturday, giving the Sun an emotional lift to tie the best-of-three series.

“I thought that I made the right decision and obviously I’m extremely disappointed to have this kind of end to our season,” Douglas said.

For now, the Sun’s players will go home to their regular off-season lives, but this loss will stay with all of them through the winter. As Douglas put it, “we need to start figuring out what it is we need to do.”

Monday, August 28, 2006

WNBA Playoffs:Motown's Shock Rock Sun And Roll To Finals

By Mel Greenberg

Who would have thought a team from Motown would find its way back to the WNBA finals by becoming rock and roll artists.

That’s what the Detroit Shock were on Sunday night when coach Bill Laimbeer’s bunch crunched their way to the Eastern Conference title by taking the third and deciding game of the best-of-three series over the Connecticut Sun, 79-55, at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville.

The defeat was the worst in the playoffs for Connecticut since the franchise moved from Orlando in the winter of 2002.

The Sun went into the playoffs for the second straight season holding overall home court advantage.

However, this season Detroit transformed the vast casino-entertainment complex as the Shock’s home-away-from-home by winning both road appearances before the playoffs and then capturing Sunday night’s contest after Connecticut had knotted the series on Saturday.

Thus, the WNBA’s best-of-five championship series will open Wednesday night in Auburn Hills, Mich., devoid of a Cinderella even though for the first time in playoff history in the league’s decade of existence, neither of the top two teams from the regular season will have reached the final round.

The Sacramento Monarchs, which won their first title a year ago by beating Connecticut, 3-1, in games, knocked out the favored Los Angeles Sparks in a 2-0 sweep in the Western Conference, that concluded Saturday night.

The glass slipper was a perfect fit for Detroit in 2003 when the Shock executed a best-ever in professional sports worst-to-first turnaround.

Deep cellar dwellers in 2002, Laimbeer took over a third of the way through that season, talked ownership into retaining the franchise, and then in the following summer steered the Shock through a thrilling 2-1 victory over the two-time defending champion Sparks, who routed Detroit in the series opener in Los Angeles.

Both the Monarchs and Shock were seen as dark horses to reach this season’s finals, even though most conceded the label was not really appropriate for either team.

In fact, a week before the playoffs, San Antonio Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes commented, “Watch out for Sacramento. They really have gotten it together right now.”

Oddly, the Monarchs did Detroit a favor by eliminating the Sparks for the third straight season because the triumph put home court in favor of the Shock. Otherwise, Los Angeles would have held the advantage.

The first two games will be Wednesday and Friday before moving to Sacramento Sunday night, and, if necessary, remaining West the following Wednesday.

A fifth and deciding game, if necessary, would be played back at The Palace on Saturday, Sept. 9. All games will air on ESPN2.

The two teams split their conference crossover games during the regular season with Detroit and Sacramento each winning on its home court.

After being the darling of the 2003 playoffs, Detroit quickly shed its glamour role the following two seasons and also struggled with injuries, particularly to former University of Connecticut star Swin Cash.

When Laimbeer took over in 2002, he told Cash, then a rookie, that the team was going to be built around her and she repaid the former NBA Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” with an outstanding effort in 2003.

On Sunday night, Cash, a former pillar of the 2002 NCAA champion Huskies, ruined the WNBA title dreams of her admirers in the Nutmeg State with a 16-point effort.

That 2003 championship season also saw the addition of building blocks of the Detroit athletic frontcourt in the acquisition of Cheryl Ford through the draft, who became the rookie of the year, and Ruth Riley, who was picked up off the former Miami Sol roster in the expansion draft.

Deanna Nolan, the former Georgia star, became an All-Star guard after being drafted in 2001, while a year ago, another former Georgia sensation was added in Kara Braxton to bolster the front court.

But the most prominent move to help Detroit return to the championship round was a deal late last season that saw the Shock acquire Minnesota Lynx veteran and two-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Smith.

The former Ohio State star delivered 16 points Sunday night to match Cash’s game-high total.

“I’m very happy for Miss (Katie) Smith here sitting next to me,” Laimbeer beamed Sunday night. “It’s her first Final. That’s why we brought her here, was to play in Finals.”

Smith now joins the recently-retired Dawn Staley from the Houston Comets as the only two United States women’s players to appear in an NCAA title game, an American Basketball League championship series, a WNBA championship series, and play in an Olympic gold medal contest.

Staley played for Virginia in the 1991 NCAA championship setback to Tennessee, won three Olympic gold medals, played for the then-Richmond Rage, which in 1997 lost to Smith’s Columbus Quest squad in the championship of the former ABL. In 2001, she was a member of the Charlotte Sting that lost to Los Angeles in the WNBA championship after getting off to a 1-10 start that season.

Smith, a top freshman at the time, played for Ohio State in the 1993 loss to the Sheryl Swoopes-led Texas Tech team in the NCAA title game. She also played in the 2000 gold medal game in the Olympics, but was injured during the Athens Games in 2004 and sat on the sidelines.

Incidentally, for the Philadelphia readership here, former La Salle star Cheryl Reeve joined Detroit this season as an assistant coach to Laimbeer after previously serving in Charlotte.

The Shock have had a split-personality about them in recent times, looking superb on nights such as Sunday, but also appearing unfocused at other times such as in Saturday’s loss to Connecticut.

“This team makes me look good every now and then,” Laimbeer said Sunday night. “It was a very fun and enjoyable experience to be associated with them today. You could tell from the locker room before the game started that they were focused and ready to play basketball. We were a little put out on our performance yesterday.

“We came out of the locker room in the third quarter with determination that this was our game and that we were going to go to the Finals.”

Connecticut coach Mike Thibault praised the Shock, while bemoaning his Sun’s struggles Sunday night.

“We picked a bad night to have one of our worst performances of the year,” Thibault said. “… Detroit played like they were supposed to play. They don’t always do that, but they played like they’re supposed to play. I think the consensus in the league is that they are physically, if not the most talented team, then one of them. They played like that tonight and we didn’t match them.

Thibault began his postmortem by saying, “At the risk of stating the obvious, we got our butts kicked. Detroit played as well as I’ve ever seen them play, at least against us. They are a highly talented team. They came out and manhandled us.

“They earned everything they got,” he continued. “I’m proud of my team for the season that we had but obviously disappointed that in a game that gave us a chance to get back to the Finals, we got beat. I’ve always told our team that you’ll have regrets if you don’t do the right things or play hard.

“I’ve never had to reprimand my team about playing hard, or at least not very often. Tonight we just got beat. Detroit took it to us from the very start. They rammed it down our throats. They posted us up. They ran their plays and made the game very simple.,” Thibault said.

“We struggled. They took away the paint from us. They made us shoot outside shots and we ended up shooting 6-for-25 from the three point line. That’s not a good sign when you are trying to beat a team that good.”

And so Detroit moves on to what should be an entertaining series with the Shock and Monarchs both having excellent frontcourts and perimenter attacks.

Ironically, Smith and Sacramento center Yolanda Griffith were on opposing sides when Columbus won its second ABL title in 1998 against the Long Beach StingRays, then an expansion squad.

As soon as the WNBA playoffs conclude, the two Olympic gold medal winners will become teammates again as they catch up for training with the rest of the USA Basketball Senior Women’s National Team that will compete early next month in the FIBA World Championship in Brazil.

Meanwhile, the vast contingent of writers who cover the Connecticut Sun and also double up, in many cases, covering the University of Connecticut’s women’s powerhouse, can get an early start on preparing for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction of Huskies coach Geno Auriemma on Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass.

When it comes to women’s basketball in Connecticut, downtime is a very short period.

Guru’s Note: Erin Semagin Damio, who debuted Saturday night here as our newest young associate correspondent, will file the postgame Sun scene later Monday.

-- Mel

Sunday, August 27, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Sun Extend Shock As Douglas Returns to Action

Guru’s Note: Due to a staffing situation in the home office of the Guru’s biggest revenue-producer, the Guru had to bypass the near-the-casino action this weekend when the WNBA’s Eastern Conference championship series moved from Detroit to Connecticut.

Fortunately, we are able to introduce the newest member of our team of younger associates, Erin Semagin Damio, who has written for several publications, including the Boston Globe, and who has filed a game report for us from the Sun’s win over the Shock to even the Eastern finals at 1-1.

We’ve asked her to make contributions to our site this winter from New England and this is her first effort for the blog.

Erin is going to make a quick introduction, but what she forgot to mention is that she also is on the rowing team at Northeastern. That makes two athletes in the house with Ms. Burkholder being a former basketball player at Cherokee High near here. We never saw her play, but she demonstrated great driving ability off the court last Sunday in steering through heavy I-95 traffic from Connecticut to help get us back here at a reasonable hour.

Meanwhile, for the geographically challenged, Erin’s hometown of Storrs is also the location of a certain university, whose women’s basketball coach will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in nearby Springfield, Mass., early next month.

Here’s Erin to say a few words, followed by her byline.

-- Mel


Hello – this is Erin Semagin Damio writing from Connecticut.

I’m a student at Northeastern University, who grew up in Storrs, thus having no choice really but to become addicted to women’s basketball.

By Erin Semagin Damio

– After suffering two narrow defeats here to the Detroit Shock during the regular season, the Connecticut Sun came up on the winning side, 77-68, in a similar game, Saturday, but with a result that had much more at stake.

The triumph enabled Connecticut to knot the best-of-three Eastern Conference series at 1-1 and keep the Sun’s hopes alive for a third straight trip to the WNBA best-of-five championship series.

The conference championship will tip off on Sunday night at 8 o’clock and the game will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

The Sacramento Monarchs, which beat Connecticut for the WNBA title last season, earned their second straight trip Saturday night by dominating the Los Angeles Sparks, 72-58, in Anaheim, Calif., to win the Western Conference championship in a 2-0 sweep.

Connecticut’s survival on Saturday was helped by the surprise return of leading scorer Katie Douglas, who suffered a hairline fracture in her right foot a week ago Sunday in the final minute of Connecticut’s semifinal series triumph over the Washington Mystics.

“We decided [she would play] about 45 minutes before game time,” Sun coach Mike Thibault said. “She came in and worked out this morning for a while, went to the doctor, received treatment and went back into her normal shooting routine.

“ She told me at the end she felt good enough to try it. I was more worried about her speed than anything, and I thought it was pretty good,” Thibault said.

Also effective was Nykesha Sales’ ability to finally snap out of a woeful 2-for-23 shooting slump that began when she returned to the lineup for the Washington series after being sidelined for 12 games, dating to the All-Star break, with a sore Achilles tendon.

“She hit a couple of tough shots, a couple of fadeaways,” Connecticut point guard Lindsay Whalen said of Sales’ performance. “We have a lot of confidence in her and obviously when someone is really hot, you’re going to try and put the ball in their hands.”

Meanwhile, Deanna Nolan once again was an offensive machine for the Shock, scoring 27 points, but unfortunately for Detroit, nobody else on her team was able to be nearly as productive.

Katie Smith, the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA, had been unstoppable against Connecticut this season, averaging over 20 points per game when playing the Sun.

However, on Saturday, Smith was held to two points on 1-for-9 nine shooting from the field, although the former Ohio State star did dish seven assists in her new role this season as a point guard.

Shock center Cheryl Ford joined Nolan in double figures with 15 points, though her eight rebounds were 15 less then she had on Thursday when she set a WNBA playoff record.

To be fair to the former Louisiana Tech star, both teams made a lot more shots on Saturday, especially the Sun, so there were less rebounds available.

The Sun’s offensive thrust was built on several factors along with Sales’ renewed effectiveness.

Margo Dydek, the 7-foot-2 center who seems to be gathering new fans every day as she grows comfortable playing her style within the Sun system, had one of her most aggressive games in the WNBA.

The native of Poland scored 17 points and had five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in just 23 minutes.

Sales said of her return to scoring productivity, “I’m just glad it (her shot) came back at such a crucial time.”

The former University of Connecticut star finished with 15 points, her first game in double-figures in the playoffs.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin was able to maneuver better against Detroit’s strong post players, leading the Sun with 18 points.

Despite all that, the biggest story of the Sun was the emotional and scoring lift provided by the return of Douglas, who was originally declared doubtful for the rest of the playoffs after she had suffered the injury.

Without their captain and All-Star MVP in the lineup on Thursday in Detroit, the Sun played somewhat tentatively.

With her team facing possible elimination on Saturday, Douglas returned to action and helped fuel a 17-5 run in the third quarter with a three-pointer as the Sun gained a 56-43 lead and later withstood an attempted Shock comeback.

“She hit that big three and had a couple of rebounds, where her length allowed her to get them,” Whalen said of Douglas’ spark “It was great to see her out there.”

Douglas minimized the risk of returning to action, although she also noted she didn’t want to be disruptive to her teammates’ effort to even the series against the Shock.

“It’s nothing that I can do any more damage to, from what I’ve been told,” she said.

“First and foremost, I didn’t want to be a distraction to them (the Sun),” Douglas said. “You know, my teammates are unbelievably caring and helpful and everything else that you can expect from teammates. Each and every one of them has supported me and I just didn’t want to distract them, but I wanted to give them something if I could.”

Douglas said she was working with a team of doctors and trainers who helped her find painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication that would allow her to ignore the injury.

She scored just six points in 28 minutes, but, as mentioned, her presence on the court impacted the game a lot more than those six points.

“I would say, yes,” McWilliams-Franklin said of the lift provided by Douglas. “I think it helped Katie a lot more to be part of it. I know she really wanted to be out there. It was quite a blow when she went down. Both sides – it helps us and it helps her.”

Douglas hopes to be able to play in the final game of the series Sunday, and said that the trainers might spend all of Saturday night helping her.

She has said several times throughout the season, most notably when she got MVP honors at the WNBA All-Star game in New York, that all she cares about is getting a WNBA title.

The MVP trophy’s nice, Douglas said, however it really doesn’t mean anything.

Although facing some bad luck now, Douglas is determined not to let anything slip from her fingers, and she will participate in these playoffs as long as she’s benefiting her team.

On the other side, Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer was a bit more subdued than he had been after the Shock’s previous victories over the Sun this season.

“No doubt it’s disappointing that we didn’t close the series out,” the former post presence of the NBA’s Detroit Piston’s “Bad Boy” bunch said afterwards. “ It’s something we wanted to do and talked about.

“We talked about it’s the hardest game we’re going to play, and we didn’t get the job done,” Laimbeer continued. “So we have to ask ourselves why? I don’t think we played nearly as hard as we had to. Our focus wasn’t there. We made some mistakes. We made some coaching blunders over the course of the game.

“The bottom line was our team as a whole did not play hard enough and as well as we have to win a close out game on the road.”

Thursday, August 24, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Shock's Ford Absorbs Sun While Monarchs Douse Sparks

(Guru's Note: Updating to reflect Western Conference finals result)

By Mel Greenberg

Three seasons ago, the Detroit Shock appropriately added a Ford to its Motor City assembly line and the result was a WNBA championship in a thrilling finish over the Los Angeles Sparks.

Prior to the then best-of-three finals, Cheryl Ford, the Louisiana Tech all-American, was named the rookie of the year as coach Bill Laimbeer’s bunch executed an all-time worst-to-first turnaround after dwelling in the league’s cellar the previous season.

Ford, a tremendous post presence, came from good basketball stock in that her father Karl Malone was also known to dominate in the paint during his legendary NBA career.

On Thursday night, Ford demonstrated how powerful she has become with a few miles of acquired experience.

The 6-foot-3 center set a career high and WNBA playoff record with 23 rebounds as the Shock put the Connecticut Sun’s backs to the wall with a 70-59 victory in the best-of-three Eastern Conference finals opener at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.

“That’s just a Herculean effort,” Laimbeer said of Ford’s performance. “She’s been very driven and focused all year, and it has been a joy to watch.”

All right, the Sun was already in some difficulty before arriving to defend its two-time Eastern Conference crown after losing Katie Douglas to a foot injury in the closing minute of Sunday’s closeout of the Washington Mystics.

Connecticut did manage to stay in contention much of the way Thursday night and will be back home for the rest of the series on Saturday and potentially Sunday if the Sun expect to return to the WNBA championship series.

Connecticut coach Mike Thibault even suggested that if the Sun had had a better shooting night they might have "won the game by 10 points."

On the other hand, Detroit has two of its three victories in a 3-0 regular season sweep of Connecticut in the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Connecticut’s situation recalls the 2003 finals when Los Angeles Sparks steamrolled the Shock in the opener in Los Angeles and then afterwards Laimbeer calmly and boldly suggested his team felt great and they were going home for the next two games.

Of course, Detroit was much healthier than Connecticut’s current condition.

The Sun did have four players score in double figures Thursday night but Nykesha Sales’ struggles from the field continued with a 1 for 6 effort that has her playoff stroke to date similar to A-Rod’s performance in the baseball postseason since he joined the New York Yankees.

“I’ve never been through anything like this in my life,” Sales said after also previously shooting 1-for-17 in the opening series against Washington. “It’s hard, because I don’t want to force things, but I also don’t want to
pass up good shots. Right now, I just have no rhythm.”

No, we did not see Thursday night’s action up close and personal due to staffing shortages in the home office this week so the quotes you see here are off the wire reports.

And, for that, matter, other than checking scores on our handy blackberry internet connection during dinner in a restaurant, we didn’t see the game from afar since NBA-TV is not carried on cable systems in Philadelphia.

So someone else will have to comment on the studio analyst debut of Phoenix Mercury rookie Cappie Pondexter, the former Rutgers all-American who was No. 2 overall in April’s draft and finished second to Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus in the rookie-of-the-year voting.

Meanwhile, Ford, who set a WNBA rebounding record for the season, was the only player in the league to average a double double this past season and with one slot still open for the USA Squad that will compete for the FIBA world championship in Brazil, one wonders whether the native of Summerfield, La., may have become a top contender, even if she can't make the audition next week if Detroit is in the finals.

“It just seemed like the ball was falling right into my hands,” Ford said of her work Thursday night, which fed Smith and Deanna Nolan, who had a game-high 21 points.

The previous playoff record was 18 by the Los Angeles Sparks’ Lisa Leslie and Ford also shattered Leslie’s rebound record for a half with 16 in the first 20 minutes of play. The three-time Olympic gold medalist had the old rebound record for a half with 14.

Chamique Holdsclaw holds the regular season rebounding record for a game with 24.

Incidentally, one Shock player already on the USA team is veteran Katie Smith, who had 17 points Thursday night and came to Detroit in a trade last season that has also been effective in helping to make the team a title contender again.

If Detroit wins it all, Smith will become the first person to win pro women’s basketball titles in the WNBA and the former American Basketball League when she helped the Columbus Quest to the league’s two titles in its brief existence in the mid-1990s.

Sparks Doused

On a day when Pluto’s planetary status was dispatched from the solar system, the WNBA’s two top dogs saw their title contender designations approach re-classification as also-rans in the playoffs.

Connecticut, the team with the best overall record, faces an elimination game Saturday in the Mohegan Sun Arena after the Sun lost their Eastern Conference finals opener to the Detroit Shock.

The Los Angeles Sparks are in a similar situation on Saturday in Anaheim, Calif., after a tenacious fourth-quarter rally by the defending champion Sacramento Monarchs produced a 64-61 victory in the closing seconds.

Yolanda Griffith, who might retire if the Monarchs win a second straigt crown, scored the go-ahead basket, a layup with 10.3 seconds left, to finish with 18 points and give Sacramento the triumph in the opening game of the best-of-three Western Conference finals.

In the previous nine-year history of the playoffs, the finals have never been without both of the top two teams from the regular season.

Chamique Holdsclaw, who is struggling with a foot injury, again was unable to play for the Sparks.

On a night when Lisa Leslie scored just seven points, Mwadi Mabika almost got the job for the Sparks done herself with 23 points.

“She killed me,” said Monarchs veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro “It’s frustrating. You play your best defense, and she still keeps making them. The shots she made, I was right there. She shot it right in my eye.”

Monarchs coach John Whisenant complimented his team's fortitude to come back from a nine-point deficit that existed in the third quarter.

“I really thought my team showed determination, character, courage,
whatever you want to call it,” Whisenant said. “We needed this one badly.”

The Monarchs have eliminated Los Angeles in the conference semifinals two straight seasons after the Sparks had appeared in three straight WNBA finals from 2001-03.

Of course, Los Angeles just recovered from a similar situation as this series when the Sparks lost the opener of the conference semifinals to the Seattle Storm in Seattle before taking two games at home in the Staples Center.

“Sacramento did what it was supposed to do, and now we have a chance to
go home and hopefully make our shots this time,” Leslie said. “We learned
from the first(-round) series against Seattle that it can be done. It just
takes composure.”

Due to an American Idol-related event in Los Angeles, Saturday’s game will be in Anaheim, near Disneyland, the one place where Pluto still has star status.

-- Mel

Monday, August 21, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Sun Advance Over Mystics Despite Horror Show on Offense

By Mel Greenberg

_ Lindsay Whalen shrugged off her foul shooting struggles in the fourth quarter with two key free throws with 7.6 seconds left in the game for the Connecticut Sun. Then Asjha Jones stopped the Washington Mystics’ last gasp by rebounding Alana Beard’s errant three-point attempt to tie the score.

The result was a 68-65 victory by Connecticut to move to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight year after sweeping Washington, 2-0, in the best-of-three semifinals series.

The Sun , which has been to the WNBA finals two straight times, will meet the Detroit Shock, which swept Indiana, 2-0, and also grabbed a 3-0 sweep of Connecticut during the regular season. The series begins Thursday at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.

“Before that last time I was yelling at myself to make free throws,” Whalen said of what had been a 2-for-8 effort from the line in the final period when the Sun’s tight grip on the outcome was loosened down the stretch. “It’s fun to make those kind of free throws.”

What wasn’t fun, however, was a non-specific injury on the right foot of Sun All-Star guard Katie Douglas in the final minute.

Douglas had stolen the ball from Beard with 57.9 seconds left in the game and Connecticut was holding a 64-58 lead.

But the former Purdue star who averaged a Sun franchise-best 16.4 scoring average during the season missed an attempted layup as Beard knocked the ball away.

Douglas “stepped awkwardly on the play,” according to a statement afterwards by the Sun. She was soon seen struggling to stay on her feet and went to the sidelines.

“Obviously, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions right now,” Douglas said. “I just want to celebrate as much as we can tonight, and say a lot of prayers and see what happens tomorrow.”

Douglas, the MVP of this season’s All-Star game, had a team-high 16 points in what became a rare offensive meltdown by Connecticut on shots from the field. The Sun launched a paltry 20 for 72 for 27.8 percent, not that Washington was able to take advantage off an equally poor 32.4 percent field-goal shooting effort.

“There were a lot of free throws tonight, and obviously a lot of stoppages, and we were never able to get in a rhythm,” Whalen said of 32 assessed fouls to the Mystics and 17 to the Sun. Connecticut was 25 for 38 from the line and Washington shot 15 for 22.

“You might have nights like this on offense, but defensively as long as you have that effort and that intensity and you’re boxing out, you can always count on being close.

“Now, two years ago when we didn’t have the defensive presence we have, we might have gotten beat by 15 points.”

Whalen finished with 15 points, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin scored 12 points for the Sun.

Beard had a game-high 21 points, but shot 7-for-21 from the field after struggling with her shot in Washington during Friday night’s loss. Nikki Teasley added 16 points, and DeLisha Milton-Jones had 13 points.

Douglas’ injury is the second major one to hit the Sun in playoff action in successive seasons after Whalen suffered a fracture in tibial plateau of her left leg in the second game of the Eastern finals last year against Indiana. She then suffered a sprained ankle in the first game of the WNBA finals against the eventual champion Sacramento Monarchs.

“Like a Phoenix, we will rise from the ashes,” McWilliams-Franklin said Connecticut potentially facing Detroit without Douglas. “We’ll be ok. We don’t worry too much until game time.

“That’s a good thing about having a lot of young players,” the veteran post player added. “They’ll worry about two years and then it will slip their mind until they come in and practice again.”

“We’re resilient. We’ll find a way, find a way to put five people on the floor and squeak out some wins. You can’t dwell on it whether it’s major or minor. We will find a way to matchup with Detroit.”

McWilliams-Franklin led a strong post defensive stance that saw her collect 14 rebounds, Margo Dydek 12, and Nykesha Sales, 10. Dydek also blocked three shots.

“I’m glad we won,” the Sun’s Mike Thibault said after being announced as the WNBA coach of the year before Sunday’s opening tip. “I’ve never seen us play that bad, offensively, and win.

“I guess that’s a great thing if you’re going to have some bad game along the way, I guess when you win, you get to win the series and get a couple of days to rest.

“Our defense was good, our offensive was terrible – terrible not only in execution, but we missed more shots than I ever saw us miss, ever.”

Washington coach Richie Adubato spoke of the Mystics’ strategy to disrupt Connecticut’s offensive flow.

“We played four different defenses,” he said. “We just tried to force them into making a lot of adjustments.”
Beard added, “I don’t think I could have asked for anything more from my teammates. We gave it all that we had. The only thing bad part is that we came up on the short end of the stick.

“We played with great intensity. Even when we had a few defensive breakdowns, we still managed to help each other and get back.”

Before the game, the Minnesota Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, the No. 1 overall pick out of LSU in last April’s draft, was named the WNBA rookie of the year. The All-rookie team included the Phoenix Mercury’s Cappie Pondexter, the No. 2 pick out of Rutgers; the expansion Chicago Sky’s Candice Dupree out of Temple; The Charlotte Sting’s Monique Currie out of Duke; and The San Antonio Silver Stars’ Sophia Young out of Baylor.

-- Mel

Saturday, August 19, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Beard's High Notes For Mystics Quickly Turn Flat

By Jonathan Tannenwald

WASHINGTON _ About an hour before tipoff, Alana Beard was running around the corridors of Verizon Center Friday night full of energy. She was singing, shouting words of encouragement to her teammates, and generally making it clear to those around her that she was ready for the playoffs to begin.

Once the game started, though, everything went downhill in a hurry.

The Mystics’ star guard missed all eight of her field goal attempts in the first half, and after making two of three shots in the third quarter, shot 1-for-4 in the fourth quarter and spent nearly eight of those ten minutes on the bench.

That kind of a scoreline was the last thing Washington needed against the WNBA’s best team, and it was compounded by subpar efforts from point guard Nikki Teasley and forward Chasity Melvin.

After the game, reporters were initially told that Beard would not be making any comments. But that changed, and when she emerged from the locker room the emotions of the evening were still weighing heavily on her.

“You can look back and say we should have done this, we could have done better ... The fact is, we just lost the game,” Bead said. “We’ve got to continue to move on, we have another game coming up and hopefully we can push it into three games.”

Beard’s struggles were also compounded by the fact that the Mystics’ fourth-quarter rally came without her on the floor. Beard admitted that “it was real tough” to be on the bench, but added that “it’s what was best for the team.”

“Coach [Richie Adubato] felt that he had a great lineup going, and they made a comeback, got it to [within] three points,” she said. “Whatever I can do for the team, I'm willing to do, it’s no big deal.”

Beard tried to put a positive spin on the evening as a whole, claiming that her team’s offensive failures were mainly a matter of the “the shots we take” in most games just not falling.

“The fact is, we could have done it,” she continued. “I think DeLisha made a great point in her speech [after the game in the locker room] – she just said that there’s no tomorrow. And that's the only thing that I felt needed to be said. There is no tomorrow."

Beard was asked if she planned to change anything for Game 2, and she replied, “I’m going to continue to play the game.

“If anything, I probably just need to take 100 million deep breaths and realize that the game can’t be over in one quarter,” she said. “You just want it so bad, and when it doesn't happen it's very disappointing.”

No one doubts the level of passion with which Beard plays the game, and that mentality is a big reason why she has taken over so many games singlehandedly in her three-year Mystics career.

Yet one of the first things Adubato said in his postgame remarks was that “if we were going to beat them tonight, we had to have three people step up and play well.” He praised DeLisha Milton-Jones by name, and said that if Chasity Melvin had not been in foul trouble she would have had a big game.

That left one player’s name unstated. It was hard to not think that player was Alana Beard.

Friday, August 18, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Sun Eclipse Mystics in Opener

Guru's Note: (Updating to Include More Quotes)

By Mel Greenberg

There’s a lot to be said for experience and togetherness. The Connecticut Sun have plenty of both, which went a long way in subduing the Washington Mystics, 76-61, Friday night in the Verizon Center in the opener of a WNBA Eastern Conference semifinals best-of-three playoff series.

“The team has obviously been to the finals two years in a row,” Connecticut All-Star guard Katie Douglas said after she had another outstanding offense and defensive effort. “We’ve been a core nucleus for a good three years and that kind of veteran experience is huge come playoff time.”

The Sun shook off a slew of assessed fouls in the early action and a Washington rally down the stretch.

“The thing that makes them great is how well they play together,” Washington veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones said of the Sun balance, which resulted in five players scoring in double figures. “The ball doesn’t have a face on that team over there. They move it effortlessly. And maybe that has something to say about our defense.

This is a tough loss for me personally, because in a situation like this, you have to get that first win," Milton-Jones added. "It's a must win. But it didn't happen tonight. We still have a chance. We have two more potential games to play, and I'll be doggoned if the Washington Mystics don't come to play in that next game."

Of equal concern along with defense to the Mystics might be its own offensive performance against the Sun which offered a paltry 35.7 percent shooting effort from the field. It was also a night in which Washington All-Star Alana Beard, the former Duke All-American, scored only nine points off a 3-for-15 effort from the field. She was 0-for-8 in the first half and missed her first nine shots overall.

"You can look back and say we should have done this, we could have done better," Beard said. "There's a lot of things we could have done better. The fact is, we just lost the game.

" We've got to continue to move on, we have another game coming up and hopefully we can push it into three games. Connecticut is a great team so we've just got to bring our "A" game, which we didn't bring tonight."

The defensive effort on Beard added yet another notch to the belt of Douglas, who has short-circuited her share of opposition scorers this season.

“Defense is huge and a definite key to this game,” the former Purdue star said. “I think once we picked it up, defensively, even though they got off to a couple of runs, we sustained them and got stops down the stretch. That’s what won the game for us.”

Beard shrugged off Douglas' effect on her own output even though to most observers the All-Star MVP played the Mystics' goto player so tight one thought she had become an addition to Beard's court wardrobe.

"Katie didn't guard me," Beard explained. "It wasn't a matter of Katie's defense. If anything, it was their team defense. So I wouldn't give all credit to Katie, I'm sorry, it just was me having an off might. I missed shots, rushed shots, and that's what happened."

Beard, who spent nearly 10 minutes on the bench in the second half before returning late in the fourth quarter, entered the game with a 19.2 scoring average.

"She [Alana] didn't have a good game tonight," Washington coach Richie Adubato explained of his decision to keep Beard on the bench. "Sometimes it happens to players, it happens that the best players go. They have bad nights. You can see it with some of the great players in both leagues [i.e. the NBA and WNBA].

"(Sheryl) Swoopes had a bad night last night for the Comets," Adubato continued. She (Beard) just didn't have a good night tonight, she couldn't make her shots. (Nikki) Teasley didn't have a good night. You can't go 1-for-9 and 3-for-15 and have Chas Melvin on the bench (with foul trouble) and think you're going to beat this team. You have to have good performances from everybody, especially your star players. It didn't work that way."

Point guard Lindsay Whalen led the Sun attack with 22 points, shooting 9 of 18 from the field, including 3 of 6 on three-point attempts. Douglas had 17 points, Margo Dydek scored 12 points, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin had 10 points and 14 rebounds, her eighth playoff double double. Asjha Jones had 11 points off the Connecticut bench.

Milton-Jones had 15 points for the Mystics, who dominated teams at home during much of the regular season and reached the 90s several times. Coco Miller scored 12 points off the bench.

Connecticut will now try to close out the Mystics, Sunday, in the relatively safe confines of the Mohegan Sun Arena. If the Sun get the job done, it’s on to the conference finals against either the Detroit Shock or Indiana Fever, who play Saturday with the Shock ahead, 1-0, in that series. If Washington prevails, the Sun will have another shot at home on Tuesday night.

“Obviously, with the format that we’re in, it’s a great win to win that first one on the road, and come home up 1-0,” Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. “So, mission accomplished.

“I was particularly proud of our half court defense, I thought we did a terrific job defending them, holding them under 36 percent on the floor, and I thought we did a great job rebounding. The Only disappointing part was our turnovers and I think we can do better than that, come Sunday,” Thibault said.

Connecticut had 17 miscuses, and the Mystics committed only 11.

With Milton-Jones recently returned to the Washington lineup from injuries and Crystal Robinson back in action, the Washington folks felt good about their chances in stealing the opener and forcing Connecticut to play back home wth elimination pressure the rest of the series.

But the Sun is an old hand at coping with playoff openings on the road, even though Friday night’s early action saw an assessed foul discrepancy of 6-0 in favor of the Mystics that disrupted Connecticut’s flow.

“I was getting a little nervous because Washington led the league in fouls for the season, and we have the fewest,” Thibault said. “For a minute I thought they (referees) had the jerseys mixed up. But we kept our poise and kept playing at the pace we wanted.”

Connecticut built a 40-32 lead at the half and then went on to increase the differential by as many as 14 points, including a 56-42 advantage just before the end of the third quarter.

But Whalen lost track of the clock in the closing seconds and Robinson followed Miller’s trey with one of her own to get Washington closer to the Sun at 56-48 as the quarter ended.

The margin was trimmed further to a mere three points at 58-55 with 7:49 left in the game before the Sun shut off the rally and eventually moved to a double-digit lead.

“You can’t shoot 35 percent from the field and 20 percent (on three point attempts) and expect to beat a very good basketball tam,” Washington's Adubato said. “Lindsay Whalen played the best game she has played all year.”

Thibault said the former Minnesota star usually raises her offensive output when the postseason arrives.

“In the playoffs the last two seasons, her scoring has gone up,” Thibault said. “She’s been aggressive about going to the basket, and that has helped her. We are seeing her probably the last three weeks, the healthiest she has been all year. I think that has made a big difference, too. She has that playoff look in her eye.”

“I try to play the same way all the time,” Whalen said, “with intensity and passion.”

Connecticut has added incentive to take the title after narrowly losing to the Seattle Storm in 2004 when the finals were a best-of-three series and a year ago when, despite the best overall record and home-court advantage, the Sun lost to the Sacramento Monarchs, 3-1, in the expanded best-of-five format.

(The Guru's Washington corrrespondent Jonathan Tannenwald contributed to this report and authored the sidebar post on Alana Beard that precedes this main story.)

-- Mel

Thursday, August 17, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: JT's Journal - Musings From Mystics Land

As promised, Washington correspondent Jonathan Tannenwald is back with another post. Here, he invokes the first person before asking the Guru’s permission to do so, and offers his opinions on some things he has seen around the league this week.

Guru's Followup: He didn't have to ask, even if he wrote his precede in the third person. Our ongoing development of young outstanding talent has already resulted in our other major correspondent speaking her mind a few times beyond story coverage with approval. Therefore, we certainly aren't going to disuade our Washington workhorse from offering an opinion or two. Incidentally, we just created the headline topper without telling him first.

And while we're on the topic of content contributors, watch this space after the playoffs, or maybe before, for yet another addition to the realm. And now, let's see what JT has to say off his relentless pursuit of WNBA coverage for us.

The Guru just had the experience of bringing a whole new meaning to editing on the fly, since one was buzzing on this laptop during the process. But enough entertainment other then the link in the post under this to photos of the Guru at play in Houston last Saturday night at Dawn Staley's surprise party. Welcome to those of you who arrived here off Jayda Evans' link if she created one at her blog as she threatened. Here's his column.

Guru's extra note: We didn't see the column until we began editing it after working on the precedes you are reading. Having just finished fine tuning a few things, the Guru would like to say nice job.

-- Mel

By Jonathan Tannenwald

WASHINGTON _ One frequent topic of pregame conversations among the Mystics beat writers has been the level of media coverage the WNBA has received this season, especially on its almighty television partner ESPN.

You need only watch the hype already given to this coming weekend's Yankees-Red Sox five-game series at Fenway Park in Boston to know that the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports can have a considerable impact on how much attention fans pay to a given league or event.

In that context, the WNBA’s recent conference call with ESPN commentators Linda Cohn and Doris Burke presented a unique opportunity to gain some perspective on the league’s place in the American sports landscape.

Because Cohn is an anchor on SportsCenter as well as a play-by-play voice, she has seen the inner workings of how highlights are put together for ESPN’s signature news show, and what the WNBA can do to get more air time.

“I wish I was running the network, then we would instantly get [the WNBA] in there, but I think the WNBA is continuing to move in the right direction,” Cohn said. “The WNBA by far should be involved more in SportsCenter highlights. Why it isn't, I don't know, but that's not up to me.”

In her first season broadcasting WNBA games, Cohn said she has been particularly impressed with the league’s crop of young stars who made an impact on the college game before turning pro.

“The talent coming out of college and going right into the WNBA is making an instant impact,” she said, “as we saw this year with the Seimone Augustuses and the Cappie Pondexters, who were dueling for much of the season for the scoring title.”

Of course, Diana Taurasi ended up with the scoring title, and Cohn noted that the former Connecticut superstar is “obviously leading that college charge from a few years ago.”

Cohn asked for patience from the league’s devotees, noting that a certain league that has given the WNBA a significant amount of its money also took a long time to become a big deal.

“The NBA took time,” she said. “The WNBA is only 10 years old, and we’ve seen these incredible shots and certain things that capture the eyes and make the Top 10 Plays on SportsCenter, especially in the last few years.”

But she noted that, perhaps not coincidentally, the WNBA has adopted a marketing strategy that has served the NBA very well under current commissioner David Stern’s reign.

“I think the league is going in the right direction in promoting the talent and the personalities... especially up close and personal this year,” she said. “So it’s on the right track.”

My own few cents on this are right in line with Cohn’s remarks.

The first WNBA game I ever attended was Alana Beard’s debut with the Mystics. I bought a cheap ticket in the upper deck because I had seen Beard play for Duke and she had impressed me so much that I wanted to see her play in person.

A few months earlier, I was in Bridgeport, Conn., watching Diana Taurasi defend Penn’s 5-foot-4 point guard Joey Rhoads, and it was impossible to not be awestruck by the way the thousands of young girls in the packed arena simply idolized Taurasi and her teammates.

Now, having covered the WNBA for two years, I am still drawn first to those younger players I saw in college. I watch Beard, Taurasi and others such as Connecticut’s Lindsay Whalen and Chicago’s Candace Dupree, who Mel and I both saw play for Dawn Staley at Temple.

Even some of the players who were not top picks, such as Shyra Ely and Liz Shimek, get my attention because of their reputations as college players.

I certainly appreciate what the longtime WNBA veterans, such as Washington’s Crystal Robinson and Detroit’s Katie Smith – and Staley, of course – have given to the league. But there does seem to be a changing of the guard going on.

Adubato reflects on Staley’s retirement

Speaking of Staley, with all the ceremonies going on over her retirement as a player, I asked Mystics coach Richie Adubato what Staley’s legacy meant to him. Here’s what he said:

“What it’s meant for me is, we got upset one time in the playoffs and she had 21 [points] in the last game (2001)," Adubato said.

"She is the ultimate point guard in that she really knows how to play. She runs a team and then shoots when necessary, but she has always been big in the clutch," he continued.

" I just marvel at her stature. She’s so thin as far as her body frame is concerned, so everybody goes after her and tries to play her very, very physical. But she just knows how to keep you off her.

" She reminds me of Reggie Miller in that way. Reggie Miller had 170 pounds and every team that played him tried to rough him up, beat him, the whole bit – they never got anywhere.," Adubato explained.

"Dawn Staley did the same thing. When she was here, we tried to play her physical, [but] she just knows how to cope with it over the years. To me, that’s the best comparison I can give you.”Adubato noted.

However, that there is one big difference between Miller’s legacy and Staley’s: the presence of Spike Lee at those Pacers-Knicks games, and the famous conversations that took place between Lee and Miller.

Maybe what the WNBA needs to get some publicity is for Lee or someone similar to be courtside at a big game, talking trash to Katie Douglas or Alana Beard.

But the Liberty might have to get back to the playoffs first.

On a more serious note, I first met Staley at a Temple women’s game two years ago. Ever since then, I have been truly impressed with her professionalism and the respect that she has for the sport of basketball.

And at a time when American sports desperately needed a role model both at home and abroad, Staley was the perfect choice to carry the U.S. flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics.

I know that this is a blog with national reach, but it is worth highlighting Staley’s work in Philadelphia, because she has a very special place in the sports scene of her home town.

Staley gets standing ovations almost wherever she goes, and her work has won particular appreciation from those who follow the vibrant college basketball scene, especially from the male gender audience.

It clearly means a lot to Staley to be coaching Temple, both because of her local roots – she grew up a short walk from the school’s campus – and because she got to work for six years along legendary Owls men’s coach John Chaney.

Dawn Staley has done so much for women’s basketball already, and she will surely continue to elevate the sport as a coach in the years to come.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

WNBA: Stepping Up - Or Sideways

By Mel Greenberg

This is a short post to deliver the promise and the only gateway to the evidence at hand.

One of our photo editors was able to create a slide show at Philly.com, but this is the only gateway link to view the Guru at play Saturday night in Houston at the surprise party for the Comets' Dawn Staley at Clyde Drexler's restaurant.

It was held after ceremonies honoring Staley's retirement were held at the Toyota Center following Houston's victory over the Seattle Storm to clinch a playoff berth and the third seed in the Western Conference.

Adding to the caption info in place at the site, Teresa Edwards is a longtime friend of Staley who played with her in the Olympics, helped found the former American Basketball League along with Staley and a slew of other players, eventually played on the ABL's Phila. Rage, and also starred at Georgia. She also played for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx.

Jayda Evans, who may have even more photos at her web site, is a sportswriter at the Seattle Times, who recently authored a book, and covers the NBA's Seattle Sonics and WNBA's Seattle Storm.

Raye Pond is a former Nike representative who had many dealings with Staley as the lead endorser for the prolific point guard.

Carla McGhee is the new WNBA director of player personnel. A former Tennessee star and teammate of Staley on the 1996 Olympic gold medal squad, she also played for the ABL's Atlanta Glory, as did Edwards, and was an assistant coach for a season to Staley at Temple.

Kathy McConnell Miller was a senior at the University of Virginia when Staley was a freshman. She is currently the coach of the University of Colorado and also is the older sister of Suzie McConnell Serio, the former WNBA Minnesota Lynx coach who starred at Penn State, as well as with the former WNBA Cleveland Rockers. Suzie. a former all-American, also won a gold medal with 1988 Olympic team in Seoul, Korea and a bronze with the 1992 squad in Barcelona, Spain.

That's it until we return to regular coverage from one of our correspondents, or yours truly.

-- Mel

WNBA Playoffs: "Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Smarter ..."

Guru's Note: (As we roll out our playoff coverage here and in print, we begin with yours truly focusing on the changing scene, while our Washington correspondent Jonathan Tannenwald in the next subsequent post gets into each of the opening round matchups. Philly.com will have my Thursday preview for print on Thursday, makes sense doesn't it?, which will go on a different angle. Jonathan, who is expected to weigh in beforehand with another post, and I will be in D.C. on Friday night, while, if she's still on the books, Ms. Burkholder, fresh off her debut in the Phillies pressbox, will be our sidekick Sunday in casino-land, where she will also be on special assigment for another project.
Also, sometime Wednesday, like it or not, to head off our colleague Jada Evans in Seattle from posting on her blog, we will link to some photos of the party scene from Saturday night for Dawn Staley in Houston. Yeah, yours truly was the subject of a barrage of cameras. ).

By Mel Greenberg

Although WNBA playoff coaches were busy assessing their team’s situations during Tuesday’s teleconference with reporters, they also answered questions of a more general nature.

Asked how the WNBA has changed since his Detroit Shock won the 2003 title over the Los Angeles Sparks, coach Bill Laimbeer quickly responded, “Bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, coaches across the board are more prepared. It’s like night and day.

“The league has has taken two massive jumps,” added Laimbeer, whose team opens in the Eastern Conference Thursday night at the Indiana Fever. “When it started (in 1997), it was a 30-something league (average players’ ages) and the first major jump was the year that (Swin) Cash and Sue Bird and the (other) Connecticut kids came in and really made it an influx of young talent.

“I think in the last year, the new players coming in and the competition for jobs has taken the league to another jump,” the former NBA Detroit Pistons star said. “You have seen the scoring go up. I think the 24-second clock had an impact, but I don’t think anybody realized the impact it would have scoring wise and increase the quality of the game.

“Our team now is bigger, faster, stronger and we are more mature, but so are all the other teams.”

Washington Mystics coach Richie Adubato, whose team opens at home Friday night against the overall top-seeded Connecticut Sun, has also been in the WNBA for a while after previous spending a six-year stint with the New York Liberty.

“I came in after the second year ,” Adubato said of joining the Liberty for the 1999 season. “I was in New York for six years and we get to the finals three times and I felt at the time that women’s basketball had a great future because the players were excellent. Coming from the NBA, it was a big adjustment for me because they (women) are different in other areas because they don’t have the individual abilities that players in the NBA have, but they have more of a team game. I see an evolution as far as teams in the league.

“There is tremendous parity in the league,” Adubato said. “Because there are only 14 teams and we are in our 10th year, people have been able to put together strong teams with good players at every position and just like the NBA, the league has been able to go to the international scene and bring in people.

“The biggest thing is the top four picks that came out this year packed this league with talent and as a result you have a better product. We are getting bigger up front, and we are getting more athletic and we are getting better athletes.”

Houston coach Van Chancellor’s Comets won the first four WNBA titles and only missed the playoffs once, although this year his injury-riddle squad did not wrap up a berth until the final day of the regular season on Saturday.

“I was just thinking in 1997, we beat Charlotte in a game in double figures, we beat New York for the title about 8, or 9 or 10,” Chancellor said. “I do agree … with Richie … It’s all changed because of the players, it’s got so many players.

He noted the Western Conference, in particular, where each of the four playoff teams has won a championship in this decade, including the Sacramento Monarchs, last season’s winners whom the Comets will host Thursday night.

“Yeah, how about this, the hottest team, the Phoenix Mercury, won 7 in a row. They beat Sacramento, Houston, and LA, and they aren’t in the playoffs,” Chancellor said while also praising Mercury third-year pro Diana Taurasi as the “real deal.”

The former University of Connecticut star had a record 47 points against Houston, last Thursday night, when the Mercury outlasted the Comets, 111-110, in triple overtime in Houston in a game that set a combined WNBA scoring record.

As it evolved, Houston needed the win over the Seattle Storm on Saturday or Phoenix, with two wins over the San Antonio Silver Stars and Sacramento on Saturday and Sunday would have edged the Comets into the postseason on a tie-breaker and Dawn Staley’s prolific playing career would be sealed in the history book.

“I’ll bet there are a lot of teams happy that Phoenix is not in the playoffs,” Chancellor said.

Another issue discussed was the injury situation that impacted most of the teams along the way that made the playoffs and several that did not.

“It happens every year,” Laimbeer said. :”In certain markets, they will promote injuries that happen to their key players. These (injuries) happen to every team, but it’s a matter of what year and what team. You have to play through it. That’s why you are going to see, because of such a short season, that we have multiple champions over the course of time because injuries will play a part in wins and losses.”

Adubato looked to the West as well as his own team, noting, “Seattle got hit big time and Houston and it was their stars and over here it was our stars. I don’t know what the exact figures are, but I do know the importance of having your star player go down and the parity we have in this team. When we lost DeLisha (Milton-Jones), we didn’t win as many games. It seems this year that the star players were injured and I guess that’s why it’s more noticeable.”

-- Mel

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

WNBA Playoffs: Coaches' Outlook

Guru's Delegate's Note: Earlier Tuesday, the WNBA held a conference call with the head coaches of the teams in this year’s playoffs as well as ESPN commentators Linda Cohn and Doris Burke. Guru-in-Chief Mel and Washington correspondent Jonathan Tannenwald were both on the call, and in this post Jonathan picks some of the highlights from the Eastern and Western Conference Coaches.

By Jonathan Tannenwald


Connecticut Sun (1) vs. Washington Mystics (4)

Connecticut’s Mike Thibault admitted that as “a typical coach, I worry about everything.”

Nonetheless, even as he assessed his team’s injuries ahead of Friday night’s game in Washington, it became clear that the Sun are primed for a deep run in this year’s playoffs.

Katie Douglas has only been practicing lightly, but Thibault said Nykesha Sales has had “full practices every day now for about 10 days.”

Those injuries have given Thibault a good chance to use his bench players, though, and he said that his younger players stepped up to the challenge.

“I think that what I’ve been trying to impress upon young players is to do one or two things well,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to do everything as a rookie, so give us hustle plays. Give us energy, and that will translate into making you valuable for me to put you on the court.”

Thibault’s counterpart, Mystics head coach Richie Adubato, admitted that his team faces “a very big challenge” against the best team in the league this year.

“We understand that the type of team we are playing has been to the Finals twice and are very hungry to get back there a third time,” Adubato said.

But if the playoffs are a stage for anyone in this series, that player is surely Mystics guard Alana Beard. She finished sixth in the league in scoring, averaging 19.2 points per game, nearly three points higher than Sun guard Katie Douglas. Furthermore, Beard scored at least 21 points in all six of the Mystics’ games in August, and topped the 20-point mark 18 times this season.

“She’s come in here with great attitude in super shape and she is playing tremendous basketball, rebounding, scoring, defensive pressure on the ball and steals,” Adubato said. “She’s been a leader on and off the floor.”

ESPN commentator Doris Burke did not rule out an upset.

“I think for a team that’s a 4-seed, opening at home anything can happen, and it really puts the favorites on edge,” she said. “It is imperative that [the Mystics] jump on [Connecticut] at home, because I just don’t see them winning at [Connecticut] more than once.”

Detroit Shock (2) vs. Indiana Fever (3)

Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer knows plenty about playoff basketball in the Motor City, having won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 with the Pistons and the WNBA title in 2003 with the Shock. He said his team is “the most focused I’ve seen out team in a long time,” and that star guard Katie Smith is once again leading the way.

“Her defense has been phenomenal,” Laimbeer said of Smith. “Her steady play and running our point has been a great positive for us, and the best part about it is she is still learning how to understand the defenses being thrown at us and what our players can still do.”

Fever coach Brian Winters said he expects the series to be tight, given that each team won its two home games against the other. But he also would not be surprised to see Bill Laimbeer engaging in what we might call frequent conversations with the referees.

“Two can play that game, a little gamesmanship I guess,” he said. “You’ve got to plant seeds with the officials, whether someone’s walking, someone’s in the paint too long, whatever it is... I don’t think it’s a one-way street.”

But if defense wins championships, then Doris Burke’s prediction that the pace of the game will show in these playoffs would probably benefit Detroit.

“I think championships inevitably – I don't care what level of basketball you're talking about, whether it's the NBA, WNBA or men's and women's college basketball championship basketball – clearly it's a lot easier to slow the pace then it is to generate fast pace,” Burke said. “So yes, I do believe, like the NBA and collegiate championships, you will see things slowed down, it will be more physical in all likelihood – cutters will be bumped, people will check out a little bit harder, there will definitely be more contact, I think.”


Los Angeles Sparks (1) vs. Seattle Storm (4)

Sparks coach Joe Bryant knows a little something about players in Los Angeles who can take over games, being the father of Lakers star Kobe. In the summer, Lisa Leslie takes over the Staples Center, and she is a big reason why L.A. has the West’s top seed. But the Sparks will have a considerable challenge in the first round, opening at Seattle, who won the 2004 WNBA title.

The Storm are the only team to have won the season series against Los Angeles, having done so by two games to one. That will add some extra spice to this series, and Bryant said he expects a hostile reception at Key Arena on Friday night.

“I think going to Seattle, the energy boost that home fans can give to Seattle, we’ll have to overcome that,” Bryant said. “We’ve just got to be able to withstand that run at keep it close, and hopefully come out with a victory.”

Storm coach Anne Donovan acknowledged Leslie’s importance, but said that L.A. has been successful for other reasons.

“I give a lot of credit to Joe Bryant; he has done a great job in giving [players] the right roles,” Donovan said. “That starts with [Chamique] Holdsclaw coming off the bench, and really embracing that role, and doing great off the bench for them. It just seems to be a more balanced, focused, not-so-erratic team.”

ESPN’s Doris Burke gave the edge to the Sparks, not only because of their talent but because of Seattle’s recent injury problems.

“I think [the Storm] are a team with a wealth of ability and clearly... they have talent and they can play with anybody in the league when they are healthy,” Burke said. “I just question their ability to win a series, because I don't think they’re healthy enough, to be quite honest.”

Sacramento Monarchs (2) vs. Houston Comets (3)

The coach of the defending WNBA champions also wins the prize for best quotes of the conference call.

Sacramento’s John Whisenant admitted that he is “nervous” about playing Houston in the first round, and that his attitude is one of “trying to get ourselves as ready as we possibly can to try to go down and steal a win in Houston.”

But Whisenant added that the advantage of having won the title last year is that “we know we can do it, because we have done it.”

“I know they’ll get in there and battle and fight,” he said. “Playoffs are like street-fights, you’ve got to get your nose bloodied and some knees skinned, and take the charges.”

Like many coaches, Houston coach Van Chancellor had to deal with injuries to some of his biggest players, including Tina Thompson and Dominique Canty. But veterans Sheryl Swoopes, Michelle Snow and Dawn Staley carried the team to a playoff berth, though it came down to the team’s last game of the season.

“Sheryl stepped up and played remarkably well,” Chancellor said. “Dawn Staley has really held our team together.”

ESPN’s play-by-play voice for WNBA games this season, Linda Cohn, picked Sacramento as her dark horse for these playoffs, even though it might seem odd to pick the defending champions as a dark horse.

“It’s strange to even say this, because I don't think this even qualifies, but when you see how L.A. dominated the West, I then have to look at Sacramento as my dark horse because everybody's forgetting about the defending champs,” Cohn said. “They seem to be forgotten... Once again, people are looking at the L.A.’s and the Connecticuts and forgetting about what is lurking.”

Sunday, August 13, 2006

WNBA: Mystics Succumb to Liberty's 3-For-All

(Guru's Note: While we were dealing on Sunday with the return from Houston and the weekend celebration of Dawn Staley's career, our Washington correspondent Jonathan Tannenwald made his working debut in Madison Square Garden in New York reporting on the Mystics' visit to the Liberty on the final day of the WNBA's regular season.)

By Jonathan Tannenwald

NEW YORK _ For the New York Liberty, this season has been far from ideal.

But while their game Sunday against the Washington Mystics was of no consequence in the standings to either team, New York gave some meaning to their Fan Appreciation Day by winning the contest, 93-81, at Madison Square Garden.

New York’s main weapon was a barrage of three-pointers, hitting a franchise record 13 of 26 attempts from behind the arc.

That also helped get the crowd of 11,907 on its feet, drowning out the sizeable section of Mystics fans that could be heard throughout the arena before the game.

The Liberty’s effort both on offense on defense pleased coach Pat Coyle, who can point to seven wins in her team’s last ten games this season as reason for optimism heading into next year.

“I always want to make the playoffs,” Coyle said. "But in saying that, with such a young team – eight new players and so many being first or second year – I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made.”

Interestingly, both teams shot 31-for-62 from the field for the game. But the Liberty got their edge from the 3-point line and the free throw line as well, making all 18 of their foul shots.

Shameka Christon and Cathrine Kraayeveld led New York with 22 points, while Becky Hammon scored 21 points and dished out six assists.

The Mystics hurt themselves as well.

Although they jumped out to a 11-2 lead early in the first quarter, they faltered afterwards, and were outscored in all three of the other quarters.

While Alana Beard scored an impressive 29 points, Nikki Teasley did not score and took only two shots. Chasity Melvin also recorded only two field goal attempts, scoring three points – a layup and the ensuing free throw in the second quarter.

“They did a great job of shooting the ball, and we were lax on defense,” Beard said. “I can’t really pinpoint anything that happened, it was just a good game all around.”

Mystics coach Richie Adubato admitted he was happy to rest his key players at the end and avoid any injuries as the playoffs loom later this week.

“We’d love to go into the playoffs on a high note, but we think we had our high note Friday against Detroit,” he said, referring to the Mystics’ 78-66 win over the Shock two days earlier. “Today was a game where we were going to play people, play a lot of people, and try not to get anybody hurt.”

Adubato also said that using so many players hurt his team’s cohesiveness. “We would have liked to have done a better job, but we had different combinations of people out there, and they didn’t understand where the screens were,” he said.

He was quick to add, though, that the ability to play his bench in the last game before the playoffs wasn’t something he anticipated earlier in the season.

“When I looked at the schedule earlier this year and I saw we were playing New York on ABC the last game of the season, I was saying, ‘Oh wow, they’re looking for the battle of the century in the last game,’” he said. “So it could have been that, and my life would have been a lot rougher than it was today.”

But that didn’t happen, allowing both the New York-born coach and his hometown’s team a rare luxury in this city – an afternoon free of complaints.

The Mystics will now have most of the week to prepare for their first-round Eastern Conference playoff opener Friday at the Verizon Center in Washington against the Connecticut Sun, which won the regular season for the third straight year and also claimed their second straight best overall WNBA record.

The best-of-three series will then move to Uncasville on Sunday and, if necessary, remain there for a Tuesday night confrontation. The winner will then meet the the survivor between the Indiana Fever and Detroit Shock to determine which team will advance to the finals from the East.