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.

Monday, August 20, 2007

WNBA: Photo Finish Above and Below

Guru's Note: (Erin will be filing greater detail Monday of the specifics of the Washi(ngton game in Connecticut)

By Mel Greenberg

It went down to the wire near the top and at the bottom of the WNBA standings in two entirely different competitions as the regular season came to a close on Sunday.

One playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and overall was still up for grabs when the sun came up.

Hours later, however, another Sun was put back down, specifically the Connecticut Sun, when Monique Currie's three-point dagger at the buzzer temporarily extended the Washington Mystics' postseason hopes with a 76-74 victory to disappoint a sellout crowd at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Other than pride, the loss was meaningless to Connecticut, which had already settled into the No. 3 slot and will host the No. 2 Indiana Fever, Thursday night, at the start of a conference best-of-three semifinals series.

Washington's postgame hopes were still alive after three quarters in Madison Square Garden in New York where the Liberty trailed the Chicago Sky, which had beaten them in the Midwest last week.

But New York rallied in the fourth quarter for a 58-52 win that gave the Liberty a tie for fourth, but also the playoff berth because of a 3-1 advantage in the regular season head-to-head competition between the two teams.

While one former Duke star connected at the finish for the Mystics on Sunday, one that did not connect at the buzzer for another former Blue Devils' All-American, Alana Beard, on Thursday in Washington, enabled New York to escape the Verizon Center with a one-point win that ultimately became a factor in the Liberty's advancement.

Beard, however, single-handedly kept Washington alive earlier in the week when she scored all 18 points in the fourth quarter for the Mystics in a narrow win over Connecticut to keep the excitment extended.

New York can also point to another one-point victory a week ago in Madison Square Garden against Detroit that helped return the Liberty to the postseason after a year's absence.

The Liberty will open against the Shock on Friday night in New York to start their best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinals series and off the season series between the two there's a quiet confidence that coach Pat Coyle's team might cause some surprises.

That was the situation three years ago when New York ejected Detroit, also defending WNBA champs at the time, at the buzzer in the second game of a 2-0 sweep in the Eastern semifinals.

"We're ahead of schedule," Coyle kept saying through the stretch drive as her young roster hung tough in a series of pressure-cooker games.

In the West, the Phoenix Mercury rebuilding project that began a year ago when Paul Westhead became coach has blossomed from a narrow missed playoff qualification at the finish of the regular season to making Phoenix the best in the West. The Mercury's overall record is exceeded only by Detroit.

It's the first time since the inaugural 1997 season that Phoenix has finished on top in the West. The Mercury will open Friday night in the Northwest against the No. 4 Seattle Storm, whom the Mercury swept, 4-0, during the regular season.

One factor that helped Phoenix get to the postseason was a headline-making draft-day trsde when the Mercury took former Duke star Lindsey Harding as the overall No. 1 pick and then traded her to the Minnesota Lynx for some veteran rebounding help from forward-center Tangela Smith.

An equally headline-making draft trade move occured soon after Phoenix's action that day in Cleveland when the San Antonio Silver Stars took Ohio State center Jessica Davenport as the overall No. 2 pick and then dealt her to New York for all-star guard Becky Hammon.

The result, combined with several other deals, helped New York, but also propelled the Silver Stars to the No. 2 slot in the West. They will open at the defending Western Conference champion Sacramento Monarchs Thursday night.

Bottoms Up in the West

While teams at the top of the league were moving into the next chapter in their quest for a championship, some interesting developments occurred at the bottom of the West with an eye among the have-nots for future improvement.

Although Minnesota languished with the worst record most of the season, the Lynx finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Sparks for that distinction, overall, besides the conference standingts.

The Lynx beat San Antonio, which had nothing to play for, by a score of 81-55 in Minneapolis, while Los Angeles fell to the visiting Houston Comets, 82-72.

That puts Minnesota and Los Angeles both at 10-24. The two teams split their series at 2-2 but Los Angeles has a worse conference record.

Thus, when it comes to percentage distribution for the draft lottery balls toward determining the No. 1 overall pick in April, Los Angeles will be in first position, going in, followed Minnesota, Houston, Chicago, and Washington.

This is worth noting because the senior class coming out of college is one of the more talented ones in recent seasons. First, there's the possibility that Tennessee junior superstar Candace Parker could opt to leave after next season, which eligibility rules permit because her original class will be graduating.

Other prized talent includes Stanford's Candice Wiggins, Maryland's Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper, Rutgers' Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson, Louisiana State's Sylvia Fowles, and Tennessee's Nike Anosike.

New York, incidentally, is holding two first round picks, including San Antonio's, though the Liberty's and San Antonio's improvements has slightly lowered their value.

If Parker does decide to join the draft, Los Angeles can picture her on a roster with Lisa Leslie, who missed this summer due to the birth of her first child; Minnesota can offer a membership card in the Lynx's No. 1 club that now includes former LSU star Seimone Augustus and Harding; Houston can potentially offer a front-court partnership with Tina Thompson if the veteran all-pro decides to return to the Comets; Chicago offers Parker her hometown and a lineup, whose frontcourt is headed by second-year pro Candice Dupree and veteran Chasity Melvin; Washington has past experience with No. 1 picks, having taken former Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw in 1999 when being the worst team in the league was good enough.

Delaware's Smith is Playoff Bound

What a wild year for former Delaware star Tyresa Smith. One of the top Colonial Athletic Association stars last season, Smith became the first Blue Hens women's player to be picked in the draft when Phoenix took her as the 18th overall pick in the second round.

Smith was waived, however, when the final cuts were made. Of course, Phoenix went on to win the West. Now it's turned out all right, anyways for the native of Dover, Del. On Sunday, Detroit signed her as a free agent, making her available for the playoffs, Friday night.

Rutgers Family Feud

Several former Rutgers stars of coach C. Vivian Stringer are on playoff rosters, with Tammy Sutton-Brown a member of Indiana, Chelsea Newton a member of Sacramento, and Cappie Pondexter, the No. 2 overall pick a year ago, with Phoenix. Additionally, the Mercury's Tangela Smith played for Stringer at Iowa.

Of course, Connecticut alumna are all over the place, including All-Star Diana Taurasi (Phoenix), the 2004 No. 1 pick, and Mercury teammate Kelly Schumacher; Ann Strother (Indiana); Asjha Jones and Nykesha Sales (Connecticut Sun); Ashley Battle (New York); Swin Cash (Detroit); and Sue Bird (Seattle).

Tennessee is represented in the postseason by Loree Moore (New York); Tamika Catchings (Indiana); Shanna (Zolman) Crossley (San Antonio); Kara Lawson (Sacramento); Ashley Robinson and Shyra Ely (Seattle).

Georgia, Stanford, Duke, Penn State, and Temple are among other schools with multiple alumna in the playoffs.

Curse of the No. 1 Pick Continues?

A year ago, after Suzie McConnell-Serio quit Minnesota as coach late in the season it was suggested that other than the Houston Comets' Van Chancellor, with the original 1997 No. 1 pick of Tina Thompson, every succeeding coach who was able to take a No. 1 draft pick was gone quickly in many cases or within two seasons of making the selection.

Chancellor, incidentally, was the last charter to coach to leave when he retired from Houston in the offseason and then later took the Louisiana State job.

And so it was, we noted to our longtime friend and former media colleague Ann Meyers Drysdale, after she became the general manager of Phoenix, it might be smart to trade the No. 1 pick.

Well, Phoenix did just that, as noted above, but after making the actual selection before the deal.

Those few moments of possession may have been enough to keep the tradition alive.

Rumors continue to place Phoenix's Paul Westhead as an assistant in Seattle back in the NBA.

The former coach, after the published story, said he will make no decision until this season is over.

"I'm not going to know anything for a while," Meyers Drysdale said the other day. "I'm sure if the job becomes vacant, people are going to be coming out of the woodwork."

If Westhead leaves, assistant Corey Gaines, who played for Westhead at Loyola-Marymount, becomes the frontrunner in that he is familar with the up-tempo attack that Westhead adapted to the women's game, obviously with great success.

At this point, it would be foolish to re-tool into a different model after the players finally got to understand Westhead's offense.

So if change comes about, just blame it on the curse.

-- Mel


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