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

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

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