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

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. _
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

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