Womhoops Guru

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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

WNBA: Three Playoff Teams Get Extended Rest

(Guru's note: Updating blog originally posted early Sunday to reflect and adjust effects of New York-Indiana result from Sunday night)

By Mel Greenberg

WNBA Western finalists Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury, the defending WNBA champion, along with one Eastern finalist -- the Atlanta Dream -- will be well rested for the next round which won't be played until this weekend.

All three teams produced 2-0 sweeps in their respective conference best-of-three sermifinals series participation.

Second-seeded Phoenix, with former Temple star Candice Dupree playing spectacular in her playoff debut, and former UConn sensation Diana Taurasi, made quick work of the third-seeded San Antonio Silver Stars. Seattle, with the best overall record at 28-6, dispatched the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Sparks, gaining revenge for ousters by L.A. the last two seasons.

Seattle also snapped a five-year drought of being ejected in first-round West play since winning its only WNBA title in 2004 by topping the Connecticut Sun.

However, the defending Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever allowed one storyline to keep from becoming dormant Sunday night by knotting its semifinals series with the New York Liberty with a 75-67 victory in Indianapolis.

The 1-1 deadlock will be broken Wednesday night when the teams return to New York's Madison Square Garden.

New York tied for first with the eliminated Washington Mystics but got the second seed while Indiana, which finished a game behind the leaders got the third seed.

Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee All-American and a frontrunning MVP candidate, had 17 and 13 rebounds for Indiana, which had lost four straight games and also had lost three straight to New York.

The Rutgers alums had another stellar performance for the Liberty, though no one else was in double figures. Essence Carson, who had a monster game in Thursday's opening win in New York followed with 24 points, while Cappie Pondexter, another top MVP candidate, added 20.

This time New York was unable to recover from a wretched start as the Liberty had done many times during their recent 10-game win streak. They shot 5-for-15 from the outset and trailed 21-8 before getting someewhat untracked.

The Indiana contingent quickly pointed out afterwards how a year ago the Fever fell behind the former Detroit Shock 0-1 but stayed alive to ultimately extend the Phoenix Mercury to the final minutes in the fifth and deciding game of the best-of-five WNBA championship series in Arizona.

This will be trickier for Indiana because a year ago the conference rounds opened with the higher seeded team in each series on the road and then the Fever enjoyed the comforts of Conseco Fieldhouse to draw energy from their fans the next two games against the Shock.

But now the league finally listened to its coaches and the format was changed to 1-1-1 meaning if Indiana is to return to the Eastern finals, which will be against the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream, it will have to win in New York.

Of course, should Indiana prevail, it will open the finals at home, otherwise the honor will go to New York.

Had the Liberty won Sunday night, it would have become quickly quiet for a spell in terms of playoff coverage because the other three series wrapped up Friday night and Saturday with 2-0 sweeps in each situation.

The one result which might be considered an upset in terms of seedings was No. 4 seeded Atlanta in the Dream's third year of existence routing the No. 1 seeded Mystics in both games.

The Guru is loathe to tell you exactly what day conference finals begin, probably Friday or Saturday, because when the conference semifinals schedule was released on the final night of the regular season some of the dates were quite different from what had been given to the Associated Press several days earlier.

One reason for the gap is, of course, allowances if any of the series went the entire three-game distance, which has now happened in the Indiana-New York series.

Indiana's win means from a positive note that its series with the Liberty will provide continuity the next two days and right afterwards, especially if New York wins considering for good or bad the team is located in the media capital of America, also the area home of Mets, Yankees, Jets and Giants. Did someone also say Rutgers football?

New York again will be trying to extend a pair of farewells in Madison Square Garden, though one for now will be temporary.

Liberty coach Anne Donovan is heading for the college ranks to become the new coach of Seton Hall, a Big East rival of Villanova, Rutgers and two-time defending NCAA chasmpion Connecticut, located across the Hudson River in South Orange, N.J.

The Liberty are also heading in that direction because, though not officially announced, New York will use the Prudential Center, also known as The Rock, in Newark as a temporary home the next three summers while the Garden undergoes renovations.

Meanwhile, the Guru discovered when he was done writing that this blog became rather long, which will give you a way to kill time until the weekend action gets under way.

Along the way, it is almost guaranteed ESPN.com's Michelle Voepel will be up around the clock working on features to fill space, even if it means career histories of every referee who works in the WNBA -- which might or might not be entertaining.

But to set up the next round, there are plenty of storylines among the two teams to explore.

Back in the Pacific Northwest Jayda Evans at the Seattle Times, as the Storm and Phoenix Mercury wait to play, will give you lots of color and perhaps cooking recipes and favorite menu items and restaurants of every individual from both Western semifinalists.

That reminds, thanks for the recent tweet from Jayda on how the Guru and Jayda recently turned D.C. Cab into a new meaning after a post-game meal when she was in the nation's capital for the Storm-Mystics game.

So with that said, it is time for some Guru creativy and musings below. And to you college folks out there, especially the local D-1 crowd, now would be good time to be shipping schedule, even partials or tentatives (not for publication), to the Guru for planning purposes in his post-Inquirer life.

To those beyond the local fringe, Guru would say for now maybe the highlights games at your schools, even if that includes a multitude in the mega-conferences, would be appropriate considering there's more time available this winter for the Guru to attend those contests.

Staley Few Degrees of Separation From Playoffs Action

Though former Temple coach Dawn Staley, now at South Carolina, is four seasons removed from WNBA active status, meaning Hall of Fame eligibility in both Knoxville, Tenn., and Springfield, Mass., is not far away, the former All-Star and Olympic gold medalist has direct ties in some way to each of the five times still alive at the moment in the postseason.

The most direct is at Phoenix where her all-time recruit at Temple, Candice Dupree, is lighting up the scoreboard for the WNBA defending champion Mercury.

Dupree, who came from the Chicago Sky last winter in the mega three-team deal that sent former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter to New York, set a playoffs debut record with 32 points, tying her career record set earlier in the summer, in the Game 1 win over the third-seeded San Antonio Silver Stars in Phoenix.

The Florida native followed up with 19 points in Saturday's win in Texas that sent the Mercury into the conference finals against Seattle.

When Dupree was picked by the Sky at No. 6 overall in 2006 by the Chicago, Staley predicted a great pro career for her Owl center, noting Dupree would not see a bunch of the suffocating defense she faced in college, especially against Atlantic 10 rivals.

Dupree still managed to become associated with a slew of individual and team records at Temple.

Staley in terms of Phoenix ties, also played with Taurasi, the reigning WNBA MVP, on the 2004 gold-medal winning Olympic team at the Athens games in Greece. The former star of Virginia and Philadelphia's Dobbins Tech was on the coaching staff over Taurasi in the gold medal triumph in Beijing, China, in 2008.

There's another Philly tie as well in Phoenix.

Coach Corey Gaines, who guided the Mercury to last season's title, played for the NBA 76ers and also played at Loyola Marymount for Paul Westhead, the previous Mercury head coach who is a graduate of St. Joseph's and coached at La Salle before designing his high-octane scoring system on the West Coast.

Westhead returned to the women's game and the college ranks last season at Oregon afte having been back to the NBA as an assistant following the Mercury's first title in 2007.

Gaines was on Westhead's Mercury staff before being elevated to head coach.

Staley's New York Connection: Moving on to Staley's New York ties, she was with Liberty coach Anne Donovan for a long time in the USA Basketball system, assisting her in 2008 and playing for her with the former Charlotte Sting, especially in 2001 when the Sting went from 1-10 to the playoff finals against Los Angeles.

And being on the 2008 staff also means she had Cappie Pondexter as one of the players on the Beijing squad.

Meanwhile, veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin was a teammate of Staley's two seasons in the former American Basketball League, first in Richmond, Va., and then when the team moved to Philadelphia.

She would have been with Donovan for the start of 1998-99 season that died in December when the ABL collapsed in bankruptcy, but Staley decided the previous September to jump ship ahead of time and bolt to the WNBA.

Staley's Atlanta Connection: Yep, there's a strong tie here. Dream coach and general manager Marynell Meadors held both titles with the former Charlotte Sting when she chose Staley in the 1999 draft that included the former ABL players.

Staley's Indiana Connection: Well, a former teammate in Charlotte, who arrived on the Sting as a rookie, was fomer Rutgers center Tammy Sutton-Brown, one of the Fever post players.

Fever coach Lin Dunn had to contend with coaching against Staley when Dunn was coaching the Seattle Storm and earlier when Dunn was the coach of the Portland Power in the ABL.

It is possible, though records couldn't be checked at the late hour of this writing, that if Purdue played Virginia in the early '1990s then Dunn would have been on the Boilermakers bench going against Staley and the Cavaliers.

As for another strong Fever tie, Tamika Catchings was an Olympic teammate of Staley's in 2004 in Athens and of course the two were together again, but in an assistant coach-player relationship on the USA gold medalists in 2008 in China.

Staley's Seattle Connection:: First is the Olympic association here with Sue Bird, another former UConn star, playing as the backup point guard to Staley in 2004. Storm All-Star Lauren Jackson, a center, was on the opposing Australian team during Staley's international farewell as a player in 2004. All the associations, as mentioned above, were also in play here in the 2008 games in Beijing with Staley having become an assistant off her successful Temple coach experience.

Meanwhile Seattle coach Brian Agler guided the Columbus Quest in Ohio over Staley's Richmond Rage squad in the championship series in the first season of the ABL in 1996-97.

A Guru memory comes a year later -- Richmond was now in Philadelphia, which opened the 1997-98 season in Columbus. Staley went wire-to-wire on the last play of the game to beat the Quest.

Unfortunately, unknown to the Guru, who typed away furiously to make deadline, there was a malfunction in the press room back in Philadelphia and the last edition of the Inquirer with details of the win never made it to print.

This was in a time before Philly.com ramped it up but the Guru had previously made the website famous back in 1996 when a way was figured to carry the ABL draft, giving the site its first major threshhold of traffic.

For you Rutgers fans, incidentally, before Agler took over the Quest, he was Scarlet Knights' associate coach Carlene Mitchell's coach when she played at Mo.-Kansas City or UMKC or whatever it is called these days.

Duke Gtaduate WNBA Tales

A great season for the Washington Mystics came to a quick end with two routs by the Atlanta Dream in the Eastern Conference semifinals though anybody calling it a big upset because of the 4th-seed beating 1-seed is off the mark.

The four Eastern playoff teams were close together down the stretch and could have dropped into the playoff deck in almost any order. Not far behind, by the way, was the Connecticut Sun.

Which brings this Duke University thought: Mystics guard Lindsey Harding, a former Duke star, is stuck in Blue Devils history with that moment when she missed both foul shots with an eyelash of time left on the clock, causing the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament to be upset by Rutgers in the 2007 regional semifinals in Greensboro, N.C.. That upset propelled the Scarlet Knights to advance all the way to the national title game a week later in Cleveland.

Well, in hindsight, perhaps Washington might still be alive in round one were it not for a field goal Harding did make at the finish in the final weekend of the regular season.

It was a little over a week ago that Harding hit that shot with 13 seconds left that enabled the Mystics to stop New York's 10-game win streak and move into a three-way tie for first and go on to take the No. 1 seed.

If Harding misses, New York wins, gets the overall No. 1 seed in the East, and then matches with Atlanta. Ergo, Washington, with what would have been the No. 2 seed, still has home court advantage, but plays No. 3 Indiana, which might have been a better matchup even though the Mystics won the season series over both the Fever and the Dream.

There's still a Dookie to cheer for in Atlanta's Allison Bales, who has earned praise for her work in the sweep of the Mystics.

Dunn's Duos

Told you all the Guru has too much time on his hands this weekend not being on the road. No Old Ebbitts Grill Sunday night in D.C. thanks to Atlanta.

But the Guru digresses.

If Indiana repeats as Eastern Conference champion and plays against Seattle in the WNBA best-of-five championship series, Fever coach Lin Dunn will be going against the powerful 1-2 punch of Australian Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, the players she took overall No. 1 in the successive 2001 and 2002 WNBA drafts when Dunn held both the coach and general manager titles.

It will not be the first time that kind of storyline about Dunn's past drew attention.

In 1999 Dunn, who had coached Portland in the ABL, drew a crowd of reporters at the Women's Final Four semifinals in San Jose, Calif., after Duke and Purdue advanced to the NCAA title game.

The Blue Devils, incidentally, were in their first Final Four, courtesy of a regional final upset in Greensboro, N.C., when Duke shocked Tennessee, the overall No. 1 seed, short-circuiting the last collegiate days of senior star Chamique Holdsclaw.

Several seasons before in 1996 Dunn was fired by Purdue, causing a mass player exodus but two freshmen -- Stephanie White-McCarty and Ukari Figgs -- remained. The Fever's Katie Douglas, who was recruited later, was also on the 1999 Boilermakrs.

Two other Dunn recruits, Michele Van Gorp and Nicole Erickson, transferred to Duke.

Naturally, everyone wanted to know who Dunn was going to cheer for in the title game. She just gave that famous grin and professed neutrality.

The coach of the winning Boilermakers was Carolyn Peck, who had announced well ahead of time that the 1999 season would be her last and she was heading to coach the Orlando Miracle in the WNBA, which several seasons later moved to casino-land as the Connecticut Sun.

Peck was already gone as coach and is now an analyst for ESPN on WNBA and NCAA women's basketball coverage.

WNBA.com's Web Site Fine Print Entry Door

Ok, first the Guru knows why things have to be done the way they are from a marketing perspective this time of year when it involves gateways to playoff teams from the league's main WNBA.com website.

But did you ever see those puzzle magazines in which you are asked to find hidden things in a picture or drawing.

Well, you can find the same game at each playoff team's sub-website when it comes to cnecking spellings, doing research, etc.

Unlike the regular season, when you click a link to the playoff team's page, you are hit with a mega marketing advertisement, especially selling tickets to the team's home games.

As for the entry link to get to the normal site with all the rosters, etc., here's the deal to save you hunting time. At the very bottom or in a bottom corner, you will find in fine print, as opposed to outstanding print, a little "enter blahblah.com" or something similar and you will find that which you seek, unless, of course, you are actually buying tickets and won't need to go further.

This public service item has been brought to you by the Guru foundation, in business for over 40 years trying to make life better for media colleagues.

Told you this was long but one more item to go.

If you had an iPad, reading would go quicker, which is a bit of advice upaid by Apple.

Curse of the No. 1 Draft Pick

Those of you who are veteran Guru followers at this blog might remember back in the days of one of the Disney Pirates of Caribbean movies several years ago that the Guru tongue-in-cheek noted how whichever WNBA coach had the opportunity to select a No. 1 overall pick of the draft, the coach making the selection didn't last much longer -- another season at best and most times not even in the same season the pick was made.

Indiana's Dunn, mentioned above, was one of those victims as it has already been noted following the successive picks of Jackson and Bird before Anne Donovan came along to cash in on the choices to guide Seattle to the 2004 championship.

Well, it now appears the curse has been broken for the moment -- though not entirely in the case of the Connecticut Sun.

Off a disastrous franchise debut from 2008, Atlanta general manager Marynell Mwadors had the honors -- incidentally, she's one of UConn's Geno Auriemma's assistants on next month's USA Basketball World Championship team along with DePaul's Doug Bruno and the Los Angeles Sparks' Jennifer Gillom, who avoided a conflict with the start of USA training camp in Washington courtesy of the Seattle Storm.

Anyhow, Meadors picked Angel McCoughtry fresh off the Louisville squad that had advanced to the NCAA title game losing to Big East rival UConn in the first of the two back-to-back unbeaten seasons by the Huskies.

That turned out rather well a year ago with Atlanta reversing direction in a forward thrust to the playoffs as Meadors was named coach of the year.

Progress continued this season with Atlanta holding first place through most of the way and now advancing to the Eastern finals as of now.

Meanwhile, as for the Connecticut Sun, which didn't win it but did obtain the No. 1 pick in last April's draft -- maybe good enough for coach Mike Tibault to have gotten an extension in his contract and executive support. Still, in that dynamic, the Sun are on the playoff sidelines for the second straight season.

As for that selection obtained by Connecticut, it was as surprising as a WNBA major announcement -- details unspecified in the media invite -- to made Tuesday at the Mohegan Sun -- think former UConn star Tina Charles in both situations.

The only other thing the announcement might provide is that because Connecticut, as a fifth place finisher in the East had a better record than the West second team, next season the Sun is going to be moved to the Western Conference to provide competitive balance. That's because every team except Seattle west of the Mississippi, or, in the case of the Minnesota Lynx, on top of the Mississippi, had a losing record.

The good news in that suspected move is that for the third straight summer, All-Star activity will continue at Mohegan, but the West won't be able to gripe anymore that recently they keep getting shut out of the All-Star action.

The Guru wouldn't be upset if the event actually went back to Orlando, Fla., we already noted that Sun tie earlier. Why? The shirmp feed at the NBA Store at Universal is still one of the all-time gormet events. Mohegan feeds are no longer eligible in media food discussions because of the unfair advangtage.

Speaking of killing time, the Guru might just go up to Mohegan using the announcement to take advantage of the one place he missed on the meal rounds after games in the casino.

Meet me at Margaritaville.

-- Mel

Thursday, August 26, 2010

WNBA: Rutgers Alums Give New York Playoff Opener

(Guru's note: Updating with quotes from the Phoenix game which is in this post under the New York game. The next on the scene game is either Sunday in Wash if a third game is necessary and/or New York on Wednesday if likewise occurs.)

By Mel Greenberg

The New York Liberty's Version of Jersey Girls has become as much a winner as the hit TV series, epsecially Thursday night in an 85-73 win over the Indiana Fever in the other opener of the best-of-three WNBA's Eastern Conference semifinals series at Madison Square Garden.

As much as can be said of the exploits of MVP frontrunning candidate Cappie Pondexter this season, it was another former member of the Scarlet Knights who was the essence of making sure the Liberty held on to their home court advantage against the defending conference champions in front of a crowd of 14,624.

That would be Essence Carson, the sewventh overall pick of the 2008 draft who grew up across the Hudson River in Newark spending her summers watching the Liberty play in Madison Square Garden.

Carson, relegated more to a substitute's role this season, came off bench scoring nine of her 17 points in the fourth quarter to help the Liberty pull away from the Fever decisively for the second time here in a little over a week.

But her 7-of-10 performance on the offensive end was only part of what Carson did.

Having the job of defending Indiana's Tamika Catchings, another frontrunning MVP candidate, Carson was able to contest the Olympic gold medalist to shooting 5-for-15 from the field, even though the former Tennessee All-American finished with 18 points.

"Offensively, that kind of lift is a wonderful thing to get that from anybody off the bench," said Liberty coach Anne Donovan, whose Hall of Fame career began in high school playing for Bergen Catholic High in northern New Jersey.

"It could not have happened to a more professional player than Essence," Donovan said. "I've watched her role change dramatically over the last 12 months and she has just remained focusd, composed and confident. When her number was called she just stepped right in and did the job for us at both ends."

Carson gave a little grin when asked whether she had been inspired watching former Rutgers teammate Matee Ajavon play well for the top-seeded Washington Mystics Wednesday night in their opening loss at home to the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream.

The Mystics will try to avoid elimination Friday night in the other Eastern semifinal series when Washington plays in Atlanta.

"Actually, I didn't (watch the game)," Carson said. "I just tried to rest my body and stay focused and continue to believe in myself and the entire team and what we're doing right now."

New York, which tied for first with Washington but got the second seed, will try to close out the third-seeded Fever in Indianapolis Sunday. A third game, if necessary, will be played back here next Wednesday.

Pondexter, a native of Chicago who became one of Rutgers all-time players as an adopted Jersey woman, praised Carson's performance after scoring 28 points herself and incredibly holding Indiana's Katie Douglas scoreless.

"She was spectacular tonight," Pondexter said. "In the fourth quarter she came up huge. I think our bodies kind of wore down -- the starters -- we couldn't make shots. But Essence Carson saved us today. And that is what it is all about. That is what team is all about. I'm so happy for her right now."

For a while, New York seemed ready to suffer the same fate as Washington did in the Mystics' opener against Atlanta.

The Liberty, trailing by a point at the end of the first quarter, than fell 10 points behind the Fever but were able to fight back and take a 48-47 lead at the half.

Then the momentum began to shift, especially on the play of Carson in the fourth quarter when the Liberty went from a single-digit lead to as many as 20 near the end of the game.

"When we went into halftime, I knew we could play better," said Donovan, who has made similar remarks since the All-Star break when the Liberty bolted from a last-place team to a 15-3 finish and the first-place tie. "We just needed to get re-focused defensively and I thought that we did that in the second half. In the first half, they really got out in front of us too much."

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a major free-agent signing in the offseason who had played on two of the three WNBA championships of the former Detroit Shock, had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Nicole Powell, a former Stanford star, scored 12 points for New York and connected on 3-of-6 three-point attempts while Pondexter's long range efficiency produced 5-of-10 attempted treys.

Kia Vaughn, another former Rutgers star who went in the first round a year ago to the Liberty, played briefly less than two minutes.

Carson's offensive explosion helped offset the play of Leilani Mitchell, the WNBA's top three-point shooter who was named the WNBA's Most Improved Player earlier Thursday but was scoreless against the Fever.

Indiana's Tammy Sutton-Brown, yet another former Rutgers center as is Vaughn, had 10 points and Ebony Hoffman scored 10.

The Fever, who had a chance to gain the No. 1 seed in the East going into the last week of the season, lost their last three games. However, prior to Thursday night, coach Lin Dunn had discounted the streak would affect Indiana's performance in the playoffs.

But by the fourth quarter there was New York defending tough and placing the Fever in quarantine.

"I thought there was a period when we missed a layup and another layup and another and they came up and answered," Dunn said. "That gave them an enormous amount of confidence. I also thought their offensive rebounds finally broke their backs."

Pondexter, who came from the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury in a mega three-team deal in the offseason, once again lived up to her leadership promise, especially prior to Thursday's tipoff.

"Some of the guys were tight today," Pondexter said. "I said to them, `It's a regular game. The stakes are a little higher and, yes, there's something special if you win, but it's a regular game. You play this every day. Don't put added pressure on yourself."

Pondexter knows the Fever will still be tough, especially having gone against them last year in a thrilling five-game final won by Phoenix in the closing minutes at home.

"I know Indiana. They're not going to go away. They're going to make some adjustments. Coach Dunn is going to tell them about their effort.

"It would be easy to lose focus and say, `Yeah, we got this.'

"But it's not like that. I know coach Donovan with her experience, me, myself, "Taj, Nicole, we're going to make sure everybody's focused."

Former Temple Star Candice Dupree In Playoff Record Debut

Cappie Pondexter may no longer be on the Phoenix Mercury, but the star who replaced her on the roster in last season's mega three-way deal led the WNBA defending champions to an opening 106-93 win against the San Antonio Silver Stars in Phoenix Thursday night.

Candice Dupree, who went sixth overall to the Chicago Sky in the same 2006 draft in which Pondexter was the overall No. 2 pick with Phoenix, matched a career high of earlier this season with 32 points in the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals opener.

The second-seeded Mercury will try to close out the third-seeded Silver Stars in the best-of-three series Saturday when the teams move to San Antonio, Texas.

If a third game is necessary, the series will return to Phoenix Monday,

In Saturday's other Western semifinals series, the Seattle Storm, who rolled to the top of the conference as the No. 1 seed with a 28-6 record, will try to eliminate the No. 4 Sparks at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

A third game, if necessary, would return to Seattle on Tuesday.

Seattle won the title in 2003 but has since been eliminated in five straight conference semifinals series -- the last two by Los Angeles.

In Thursday's game Dupree, a former Temple star under former coach Dawn Staley, fell a field goal short of the WNBA playoff record for a half when she scored 18 points. The Florida native had been in Chicago four seasons and Thursday was Dupree's first postseason action.

Her performance set a WNBA record for a player making their debut in postseason play.

"She was doing something all over the court, rebounding, running the lane, she was posting up in early transition," Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said afterwards. "We called a couple of plays which we don't usually do for her, coming across the lane, but she had a good look tonight so we rode her back."

Back in the preseason discussing the loss of Pondexter and the addition of Dupree, Gaines said the Mercury high-octane scoring system designed under former coach Paul Westhead was actually designed more for a player such as Dupree.

Penny Taylor added 20 points, while Diana Tarausi, the reigning MVP, had 14 points and dealt 10 assists for the Mercury.

San Antonio's Becky Hammon had 19 points and Sophia Young scored 16.

The two teams split their season series 2-2 and Phoenix beat San Antonio 2-0 in last season's opening round.

Dupree talked about her playoff debut.

"It was a great experience, obviously my first playoff game," she said. "The intensity was high, everybody was extremely motivated, and our main goal is trying to win this series in two. I just tried to come out as motivated as possible.

"Like you said, I was getting up and down the floor. I tried to do that early to get us going."

Taurasi, using humor that might come from her former college coach -- UConn's Geno Auriemma, deadpanned that Dupree's game wasn't that great because she missed five shots.

She then said of her Mercury teammate who is in the USA Senior Women's Team pool with Taurasi for next month's world championship coached by Auriemma: "She played amazing today. That is what we're going to need if we are going to make any type of run -- people stepping up and playing big," Taurasi noted.

"Dupree had a great game today but DeWanna Bonner came off the bench and gave us incredible energy. Penny carried us for a stretch. This is when we are at our best, when we have a lot of people doing a lot of things."

San Antonio's Young talked about how tough it was defending Dupree, who was an unknown force when former Temple assistant Ervin Monier discovered her. He is now asslociate head coach to new La Salle coach Jeff Williams.

"I thought Candice Dupree had a big game and her teammates did a great job of getting her the ball tonight. She was able to get to the basket, she shot a lot of layups. She shot 12-for-17, obviously she shot a high percentage because she was shooting layups. I thought her teammates did a really great job of playing with her and taking advantage of her size inside."

The Mercury in Game 2 will be returning to the scene of a last-second loss Sunday in the final regular season game that gave the Silver Stars the third seed.

""It will be tough," Dupree said of Saturday's next contest. "Their fans are pretty intense there. We just have to come out and hopefully recreate what we did tonight and if not, play harder. It's a desperate situation for them, so we know they are going to come out fighting, and we have to do the same thing."

Earlier in the day the Mercury's Bonner, a second-year pro out of Auburn, was named the WNBA's sixth player winner in the second of the first two postseason honors announced by the league and voted by the media.

Ballots, including the All-League first and second team picks along with MVP selections, were due Monday.

-- Mel

-- Mel

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

WNBA: Angel Gives Dream Playoff Opener

(Guru's note: This post is updated to include reports by email and from the Associated Press on the Seattle-Los Angeles fame in the West that was played late Wednesday night in Seattle. A second post under this one advances Thursday night's games, focusing on New York-Indiana, where the Guru will be on the scene."

By Mel Greenberg

Angel McCoughtry can be quite a devil on the basketball court -- especially to the folks down here.

Two seasons ago in the NCAA regional finals, her play ruined Maryland's hopes of getting to the Women's Final Four when Louisville upset the Terrapins and advanced to the natonal title game against Big East rival Connecticut.

On Wednesday night the second-year pro named rookie of the year in 2009 led the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream with 28 points and three steals to a 95-90 victory over the top seeded Washington Mystics in a best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinals playoff opener at the Verizon Center.

The series now moves to Atlanta Friday night and if Washington can't find a way to solve the Dream's athleticism and speed the doors won't be re-opening here Sunday afternoon for a decisive Game 3.

Home court advantage can be several things in the eye of the beholder.

Statisically off the final standings the Mystics earned the right to play more games in their arena in this round if the series goes to distance.

But McCoughtry, hailing from nearby Baltimore, had her own little motivation to be able to play in front of her family and friends.

"I try to play well everywhere I go," McCoughtry, the overall No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft, said with a sheepish smile. "But I was here in front of my family and friends and tried to show them what I can do."

There was a bit of home also for Coco Miller, the former Georgia star guard who was a first round pick of the Mystics in 2001 and was with Washington until May of last season when she was let go and then quickly picked by Atlanta. The Dream are in their third year of existence.

Miller, a surprise starter Wednesday night from coach Marynell Meadors, scored 21 points, as regular Erika DeSouza was relegated to a substitutes role and scored 12 points. Iziane Castro Marques scored 19 points.

"I enjoyed my time here, great fan support, and it felt a little weird to come back and play," said Miller, whose twin sister Kelly is also on the Dream but was sidelined with an ankle injury. "But we just wanted to come here and set the tone from the beginning."

The Miller twins, who led Georgia to a regional fnal in 2000 losing to Rutgers, are from Rochester, Minn.

Though a crowd of 10,322 was listed in the boxscore, the arena quickly became a ghost town of sorts.

The ghost of Mystics' dismal playoff performances past quickly emerged as Atlanta bolted to a 10-1 lead. Washington managed to recover by the end of the quarter but the Dream then turned the place into a nightmare, outscoring the home team 31-14 in the second quarter and leading by as many as 17 points before the Mystics rallied to a two-point deficit late in the game.

"It's hard to come back when you're that far beind," said veteran Katie Smith, who scored 10 points for Washington. "You have to do all that work and then if you get one you have to try to hold on to a lead."

Meadors cited her squad's ability to push tempo for the Dream's success in the second period.

"We were able to get out and run," Meadors said. "Our team is based on speed, quickness, balance and depth and I thought we shared the ball pretty well and pushed the action quite a bit."

Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne, a native of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, had 16 points for Washington and grabbed nine rebounds. Lindsey Harding scored 14 points but was 5-for-21 from the field running the offense.

Marissa Coleman, another former Maryland star who was on the Terrapins team ousted by Louisville with McCoughtry, scored 18 points off the bench, while Matee Ajavon, a former Rutgers star, scored 16 points as a substitute.

Atlanta had lost six of seven in the Dream's final regular season's games including a blowout most of the way at home Sunday before rallying to lose to the Mystics 90-81.

That game enabled Washington to tie the New York Liberty for first in the East and grab the No. 1 seed, both all-time achievements as was the 22-12 record.

But all that was quickly wiped out by the ghosts of Atlanta's start of the season when the Dream rolled to a 6-0 record and contended for first place heading into the All-Star break.

"It had a wonderful feel to it," Meadors said of Atlanta's attack from the opening tip. "We have to be consistent with that. I thought we did a great job defensively, we did a really good job of defending, rebounding and pushing the basketball.

"I thought we got our running game back, which helps us tremendously."

Meadors, incidentally, will be one of UConn coach Geno Auriemma's assistants next month on the USA Basketball senior national women's team.

She said she made the lineup change, going to four "smalls" because "the starting lineup didn't work Sunday (against the Mystics)."

Mystics coach Julie Plank, whose team was 3-1 against Atlanta during the season, admitted to being surprised by the change.

"I didn't like the start and was very disappointed with our defensive effort," Plank said. "You can't give up 95 points. I don't care if its regular season, definitely not the playoffs.

"Their dribble penetration hurt us a lot. We fouled a lot and they pretty much got whatever they wanted."

As for the Atlanta switch, Plank observed, "Their lineup at the beginning threw us off a bit, we were playing two `bigs,' and they were playing four `littles.' It doesn't matter, we can adjust offensively -- we don't give up 10 points that quickly. Despite the fact that it took a while for our offense to adjust our defense should still be clicking. It was disappointing."

Seattle Stays Perfect At Home

It's not hard to beat a team like the Los Angeles Sparks six times this season, especially if the one delivering the beating is the Seattle Storm, who were perfect at home at 17-0 to tie a WNBA record.

The home conquests were actually one better than Los Angeles' 16-0 effort in 2001 when the WNBA has a 32-game schedule, which is two less than the WNBA scheduling of recent seasons.

For now top-seeded Seattle, who finished at 28-6 and ran away from the West, has extended its home perfection as well as mastery over No. 4 Los Angeles with a 79-66 triumph to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals series.

Considering in recent seasons Los Angeles has been the one handing the Storm playoff exit papers, Seattle has a chance to do likewise to the Sparks likewise Saturday when the series resumes in Los Angeles at the Staples Center.

No. 3 San Antonio opens the other Western Conference semifinals series Thursday night at the No. 2 Phoenix Mercury, who are the defending WNBA champions.

Once again UConn DNA was prominent in Seattle's win with former Huskies star Swin Cash scoring 20 points while her former UConn teammate Sue Bird kept togetherness going with nine points and 12 assists running the offense at point guard.

Cash played on two WNBA champions with the former Detroit Shock.

Australian standout Lauren Jackson, one of the frontrunners in the WNBA MVP postseason award competition, had 17 points as the Storm moved to within a game of avoiding a sixth straight dispatch in the first round after winning the title as an underdog in 2004 at Key Arena.

"I don't think we're peaking right now but we're in the best possible place we need to be," Cash said after the game.

Former LSU star Marie Ferdinand-Harris scored 18 points for the Sparks while former Maryland star Kristi Toliver scored 16 points as did veteran Tina Thompson, the last of the players who were on teams in the WNBA inaugural summer of 1997.

While Toliver was suffering defeat with Los Angeles, two of her former Terrapins teammates Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman suffered a first-round setback with No. 1 Washington, which lost at home to No. 4 Atlanta.

In the other game yet to be played, second-seeded New York will open the other Eastern semifinal series Thursday night at home in Madison Square Garden against the defending conference champion Indiana Fever, the third seed in the semifinals.

-- Mel

WNBA: Liberty Try To Avoid Farewells

(Guru's note: This post sets up Thursday night's other two WNBA playoff games. A separate post coming on top of this provides coverage from Washington of the Mystics-Atlanta Dream opener and appends reports from San Antonio-Phoenix).

By Mel Greenberg

On of two things will happen Thursday night in the next chapter of the New York Liberty's landmark regular season when they host the defending WNBA Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever.

The second-seeded Liberty may be well on the way for more glory with an opening win in the best-of-three series or New York will be on the verge of saying goodbyes of sorts with both the charter WNBA franchise and coach Anne Donovan heading across the Hudson River to Northern New Jersey for separate reasons.

If the Liberty get wiped out 2-0 without returning for at least a game three Donovan will be on her way to South Orange at the collegiate level as the new coach of Seton Hall.

New York will not be far behind. Though the organization has yet to make the official announcement, reports have already appeared saying the team will be using the Prudential Center in Newark as its home arena the next three summers while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations.

But prior to tipoff the Liberty can relish so far on its daunting run from floundering around fifth and sixth in the front part of the season to finishing in a first-place tie with the Washington Mystics and earning a No. 2 seed in the revamped 1-1-1 playoff format at the conference level.

In the past, New York (22-12) as the higher seed to No. 3 Indiana (21-13) would have had to open on the road and return knowing that if they lost the opener they had two home games available to recover -- which has happened in earlier years.

The championship final will still be a best-of-five 2-2-1 and should the Seattle Storm's 28-6 finish on top of the West go for naught, whoever among the four teams emerges from the East will then gain home-court advantage.

New York was 4-7 before turning things around, especially after the All-Star break when the Liberty went on a franchise record 10-game win streak that carried them to first place.

However, the Washington Mystics, which finished with a 6-0 run, had their own ideas about winning titles and snapped the New York string on a shot by Lindsey Harding Friday night. That win helped propel them to the No. 1 seed against the No. 4 Atlanta Dream (19-15).

Washington and Atlanta opened the playoffs at the Verizon Center in the nation's capital Wednesday night before Seattle opened the West at home against the Los Angeles Sparks (13-21).

A Liberty rally on Sunday against the Connecticut Sun rally at home in overtime on Pondexter's winning shot rescued the No. 2 seed and home court as well as the standings tie with Washington.

Meanwhile, Indiana blew a lead at home and lost its third straight, falling to the Minnesota Lynx in overtime. Had the Fever won there would have been a three-way tie for first. The Fever still would have been the third seed.

In going overall 15-3 since the break, New York set a franchise record for wins, as did Washington, and in a recent matchup against the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury also set a franchise record for points in a game.

The key among keys to the New York revitalization has been the acquisition of former Rutgers All-American Cappie Pondexter, the overall No. 2 pick of the 2006 draft who had helped Phoenix to two tities in the previous three seasons.

The native of Chicago made it known she wanted to be back in the big city, especially with Donovan, who coached her and the rest of the USA Basketball Olympic
women's team to a gold medal in Beijing, China in 2008.

Pondexter was obtained in a mega three-way trade that saw the Liberty send Shameka Christon and Catherine Kraayveld to the Chicago Sky while former Temple star Candice Dupree replaced Pondexter in Phoenix.

"You know, when I had to make the decision of Seton Hall or Liberty, at that point knowing Cappie was coming, that was really a hard decision," Donovan said on a pre-playoffs teleconference call Tuesday.

"Just knowing about Taj (McWilliams-Franklin), my feelings on Janel (McCarville), yeah, I was excited to come back and work with this team. That was a hard decision back then."

Donovan was able to follow the model set by former NBA star Michael Cooper a year ago. He was named coach of Southern Cal prior to the season but remainined coaching the Los Angeles Sparks until their elimination when Lisa Leslie became retired and he headed off for the collegiate level.

"The hardest thing for me would have been if we hadn't turned it around," Donovan explained. "I was a kid that grew up coming to Madison Square Garden and watching the Knicks play. So for me the Garden is really reverent. It's a place that I had the highest level of respect for.

"For a time there the thought of not contributing to some history in the Garden was very discouraging," said Donovan, who also coached Seattle to its only WNBA title in 2003. "So for me I'm just so thrilled that this team came together, and it's such a great group of women, and we're going to leave our mark in the Garden.

"We've already done that with the regular season that we've had. We're hoping to add to that with the postseason. I'm not fast forwarding to the next season. I am just really happy that I've been part of the special season that we've had."

While Pondexter was the centerpiece in the Liberty reconstruction, McWilliams-Franklin was a valuable asset signing as a free agent and bringing a veteran presence after playing on the former Detroit Shock and having no desire to follow the team to Tulsa.

She and Donovan worked together previously on the bankrupt shortened season of the American Basketball League in the winter of 1998 when both were with the Philadelphia Rage.

"Back then she was all about defense and nothing's changed from that during this run," McWilliams-Franklin said during the winning streak when the Liberty were producing strong second halves.

Former Stanford star Nicole Powell, a three-point shooting ace, was picked up off the dispersal of the former Sacramento Monarchs roster. Former UConn star Kalana Greene became a key contributor off the bench as a rookie after being available at the top of the second round of the draft. Plenette Pierson, an imposing presence off the bench, was obtained early in the season in a trade with Tulsa.

"The addition of Cappie was a major move," said Indiana coacn Lin Dunn whose team split the season series with New York 2-2. "But I did think when they were able to get Pierson from Tulsa it added a toughness to that team. All of those former Detroit players have a toughness and experience about them. You can get one of those players on your team, especially someone like Pierson, it's really an advantage."

Indiana has one of its own in Shavonte Zealous, the former Pittsburgh star who was named to the All-Rookie team last season when she played with Detroit.

The Liberty have depth with two other recent additions out of Rutgers through the draft -- Essence Carson in 2008 and Kia Vaughn last season. They also had McCarville back in the post while former Utah star Leilani Mitchell improved to become the top three-point shooter in the league.

"She's been great," Pondexter said of Mitchell. "She's contributed in a huge way. Without that we wouldn't be where we are right now."

Though Indiana, highighted with MVP candidate Tamika Catchings and All-Star Katie Douglas, struggled down the stretch, Dunn said that the performance has no basis in terms of the Fever's mentality going into New York.

"Last year we lost 7 of our last 10," Dunn said. "And we lost 5 of our last 7, and we were playing for a championship with two minutes left in the fifth game (at Phoenix).

"So with the veteran players that we have, and the experience that we have, I really don't think losing two or three games here at the end is going to bother them at all."

Indiana has Briann January, the former Arizona State star, running the show at point in her second season. Former Rutgers center Tammy Sutton-Brown is on the squad as is former Southern Cal center Ebony Hoffman providing compliments to Catchings when they are on their game.

Both coaches talked about the new playoff format.

"You should have the right to host it first," Dunn said pointing out a year ago the Fever lost an opener on the road and had to go and win two at home. "But I do think in some ways it puts additional pressure to win that first game at home no matter what."

Donovan added, "The positives are much better than they were before. You go back to the very first year even though it was a one-game final, most of the coaches from my understanding were unhappy about a one-two going on the road.

"I think this makes it easier for the coaches and the team -- being in your own home and bed. That's what teams work for to get homecourt advantage. It is pressure, but I'd rather have the homecourt advantage and opening up at home than going on the road for that first game."

Pondexter acknowledged that the East was a dog fight and added that whatever the Liberty has achieved for now needs to be put aside.

"It's a new season now. It's a totally different ball game. Everybody's going to be playing their absolute best. And what happened in the regular season doesn't matter anymore," she said.

San Antonio-Phoenix

If the Western Conference teams with all those unprecedented losing records they're bringing to the playoffs feel under-hyped, they may want to look to last year's Women's Professional Soccer league and Sky Blue out of New Jersey for inspiration.

Sky Blue, which was in the cellar most of the way underwent two coaching changes and had several key injuries. But they found a way to the playoffs and finished upsetting Los Angeles, the top team in the WPS, in Calfornia to win the title.

In light of that soccer story maybe more attention should be made of the Mercury (15-19), which finished 13 games in back of Seattle in second place. Phoenix will open up defense of its title Thursday night in the Arizona desert against the Silver Stars (14-20), which earned the third seed in a wild three-way fight for the third seed with the Los Angeles Sparks (13-21) and Minnesota (13-21), which was eliminated.

Past seasons have seen some thrilling playoff battles between the two teams and San Antonio just upset Phoenix on the final day Sunday after upsetting Indiana at home on Friday night.

Despite Pondexter's departure, Dupree was a major contributor in her Mercury deput, Diana Taurasi was still Diana Taurasi, who will begin the postseason with a new contract tucked away to make both her and the organization happy.

Penny Taylor also remains a force and former LSU star Temeka Johnson adds shooting from the backcourt.

The Silver Stars made a bunch of changes and Sandy Brondello moved up to head coach when Dan Hughes decided to just work at the executive level as general manager.

Brondello talked about why the West was the way it was this season, including her own team, which is highlighted with Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, and former Penn State star Helen Darling.

"We've had an inconsistent season," Brondello said. "But we have to put that all behind us and take one game at a time approach. We have to go into Phoenix and play our best basketball, because we're playing a very good team.

"In the West, none of us thought it would be like this. We had to battle, and I know for us we only won three games against the East, but we were still able to make the playoffs.

"I think you see some teams, the ones with the continuity, it was easier for them to get their chemistry together," Brondello observed. "It's more about how quickly you can get your chemistry. I think the teams just get stronger every year basically. You know, the West made some changes. I know they've made a lot of changes trying to find that chemistry. That's why, obviously, Phoenix and L.A. have losing records.

"We've changed a lot of players from last year, really we felt like a new team but it's comforting when you have your experienced players around. I mean, they know what you are about, but that makes it a little easier because obviously they're the leaders of your team."

-- Mel

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

WNBA: The Second Season Begins

(Guru's note: The Guru sets up Wednesday's games in this post. Then he will be on the scene in Washington and add reports of Seattle-Los Angeles in one post Wednesday night and set up Thursday's games -- Indiana at New York and San Antonio at Phoenix -- after or earlier depending on arrival in Washington. On Thursday he'll be in New York and add the Phoenx game.)

By Mel Greenberg

There's nothing new about Washington series openers at home in the Verizon Center when the Mystics have made their rare share of WNBA playoff appearances in their 13 years of existence.

And the Los Angeles Sparks-Seattle Storm kickoff in the West has almost been a regular occurrence.

But when those two matchups get WNBA postseason action launched Wednesday night -- the Mystics will host the Atlanta Dream (19-15) -- the past does not serve this time as a prologue to the immediate future.

Except for Seattle (28-6), which ran away with the West, the other seven teams have been in playoff ambience for almost a month suggesting there won't be much change in intensity after the opening tips.

For example, last Friday night, the arena atmosphere in the nation's capital was as good as it gets this time of summer as Washington and the New York Liberty battled over the final minutes back and forth until former Duke star Lindsey Harding hit a shot with 13 seconds left. New York then missed a pair, enabling Washington to jump into a three-way tie for first and the top seed.

Two days later Washington took a huge lead in Atlanta and then held on for the win and that's why it's all different for the Mystics, who have been in the East cellar numerous times in the past.

"It was really just a playoff game," Washington newcomer but WNBA veteran All-Star Katie Smith said on Tuesday's teleconference about Friday's triumph that snapped the Liberty's 10-game win streak. "A lead for them, a lead for us, and it just came down to the wire. We played pretty well, but we are really excited for ourselves to get a chance to play against Atlanta."

Both New York and Washington, incidentally, finished in a standings first-place tie at 22-10 with each team setting franchise records for wins. Indiana (21-13), the defending conference champion, could have made it a three-way tie. But the Fever, already doomed to the third seed off earlier results, lost their third straight and became the No. 3 seed.

The Mystics are ahead of their five-year plan, according to Greg Bibb, the Mystics chief operating officer who has been on the scene for just a few years.

In the past Washiington opened at home because the formats for conference semifinals and finals in the best of three series was a 1-2 setup forcing the team with the higher seed to open on the road.

This time, the new arrangement is a 1-1-1 so the high seeds in each round will play before their crowds first. The 2-2-1 best-of-five format remains for the WNBA championship series.

A year ago, Atlanta was the Cinderella story recovering from an awful first year in the league to gain the playoffs. Of course one reason was that terrible performance landed the Dream the top pick in the 2010 draft and coach Marynell Meadors selected Angel McCoughtry fresh off Louisville's run to the NCAA title game against Big East rival Connecticut.

This year the Dream, who had to contend with Chamique Holdsclaw jumping ship before the season opener, roared to a 6-0 record at the outset and was in the hunt most of the way for the title until some slumps since the All-Star break caused Atlanta to drop to the fourth spot.

Now the Cinderella outfit is being worn by the Mystics, picked for last or fifth in preseason ballots. Washington's early woe was losing former Duke All-American Alana Beard to ankle surgery before the season got under way.

"Well, I'd like to know first who picked Washington last because it certainly wasn't me," said Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn, whose team will meet New York on the road in Madison Square Garden Thursday night to start that series. "Oce we saw Washington had picked up Katie Smith, it was obvious to me that they were going to be a strong competitor in the East, and they were, especially coming off a playoff season that they had last year."

It's the first time the Mystics have been in the playoffs in successive seasons.

Smith had played for the Detroit Shock on two of the three WNBA championships but when the NBA Detroit Pistons gave up ownership of the team last winter, Smith then began a free agent. She decided the franchise move to new ownership in Tulsa wasn't to her tastes in the twilight of a career that also included several Olympic gold medals, an NCAA title game appearance with Ohio State in 1993, and two titles in the former American Basketball League with the Columbus Quest.

Smith had health issues a year ago with her back but has been a key addition, that warrior in the locker room to help change the culture in Washington.

"I don't think you ever know exactly how it's all going to play out, one, two, three, four, whatever," Smith said. "But I thought we understood that we could play with anybody and compete with anybody. It's really the thing we all needed to do. Each team has their own identity and their own way."

The Mystics have evolved into the Atlantic Coast Conference alumni association adding stars from conference members the last several seasons.

But change also evolved at the top under the ownership of Sheila Johnson, now considered a managing partner under Ted Leonsis who took over the NBA parent Wizards in June and owns the NHL Capitals as well as the Verizon Center in the deal.

Two seasons ago, Angela Taylor, a former WNBA player personnel executive, was hired away from the Minnesota Lynx as general manager. The Mystics also tabbed Julie Plank, a former WNBA assistant at several stops, to run the squad.

This winter Marianne Stanley, who had coached the franchise to one of its better previous seasons in the early part of the last decade, returned as an assistant.

Stanley, a former Immaculata star who guided Old Dominion to three national titles, is known for her work with post players. She had a two-year stint at Rutgers under C. Vivian Stringer, the first of which saw the Scarlet Knights get to the NCAA title game in 2007.

Matee Ajavon, a former Rutgers star who was on that team, joined Washington last season when she was claimed in the dispersal draft of the former Houston Comets.

Though not likely to win the award, Ajavon is certainly worth her share of ballots for the WNBA sixth-player honor.

Low finishes in the past meant high draft picks. Additionally, a few deals along the way have added such former Duke sensations as Monique Currie, having a career year, and Harding.

From just up the road, in successive drafts, Washington claimed former Maryland standouts Crystal Langhorne, a resident of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, and Marissa Coleman, who both helped lead the Terrapins to the 2006 NCAA titles.

Langhorne has been a go-to inside presence, often gaining double doubles to the point that USA Basketball was criticized last week for not making her one of the additions for the training camp player pool from which next month's World Championship roster will emerge.

"I've enjoyed playing with her," Smith said of Langhorne. "She's consistent. She works on her game. I think every year she tries to add something new and become better at it. She's knocked down one three this year, so she's trying to improve in that area. So I think one-on-one, she could probably score on most people. She's got a variety of moves and finishes.

"Who wouldn't want to have a chance to play with somebody like that who really wants and gives you the desire to be better all the time."

Despite Atlanta's strength against most teams, Washington has been able to thrive against the Dream.

"I think they have the most athletic team in this league," Smith said of Atlanta. "They get up and down the floor as a track team. So the transition defense is huge. They have great rebounders and great post players. Not only post player rebounders but guard rebounders. So I think their transition defense and rebounding are two key, key things to try to slow them down."

But Washington will be using the top-rated defense in the league.

"I think if we can slow them down a little bit, they'll get some foul (shots) on us and score points, but if we slow them down we'll have a chance to score on them, and hopefully get a win. But it's going to be a battle just like everybody."

Several weeks ago Langhorne was made aware on that particular night that the Mystics had passed their all-time win total.

"That's great for the franchise, but now we have to go and start winning championships."

Seattle-Los Angeles

The Storm already has one title in their collection, winning in 2004 under Anne Donovan, who is now coaching the New York Liberty.

But this season has been new ground for Seattle and rare ground in the WNBA as the Storm went 28-6, with most of the losses occurring later after clinching the West No. 1 seed in record time by late July.

The Storm also have overall home-court advantage but if Seattle fails to win the Western playoffs, home-court will shift to any of the four Eastern participants.

Under Br1an Agler, who was the coach of Smith on Columbus team that won the two ABL titles, Seattle went 17-0, the second WNBA team to be perfect at home following the 16-0 in 2001 by the Los Angeles Sparks.

Los Angeles also won 28 games that year, but on a 32-game schedule.

Seattle hasn't made it past the first round since that 2003 championship but the Storm will be the favorites against the Sparks who have dispatched them in recent seasons.

It's an odd matchup on paper with every team in the West except the Storm having near-deep or deep losing records _ Los Angeles was 13-21 gaining the fourth-place tie-breaker over Minnesota.

The Sparks suffered a major setback when former Tennessee sensation Candace Parker -- the 2008 rookie of the year and MVP -- was shut down in July with a shoulder injury.

But Los Angeles was able to win enough, especially on the work of former Houston star Tina Thompson and guard Ticha Penicheiro, a former Old Dominion star who played for the former Sacramento Monarchs and signed as a free agent.

Thompson's last-second one-point shot against Minnesota a week ago can be considered the deal-maker or else Los Angeles would be holding a draft lottery ticket hopeful of gaining the No. 1 pick, likely to result in the selection of University of Connecticut senior star Maya Moore.

All-world Lisa Leslie retired from Los Angeles after last season so the series with Seattle won't see the classic confrontations inside the paint between Leslie and perennial MVP candidate Lauren Jackson, a native of Australia.

Seattle has a lot of spice off the powerful UConn program with such past Huskies stars as future Hall of Fame point guard Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Svetlana Abrosimova.

On Tuesday's teleconference Bird was asked the difference between playing on a dominate team as UConn and the one in the pros, though she did disagree with the description of Seattle's performance this season.

"I know we had some success this year," Bird said. "I don't know if dominate is the word I'd use only because there is some crazy stat, like half our games we were down going into the fourth quarter.

"So in terms of compared to college, first of all, you can't compare college to the WNBA. Like I said, in college we were dominant because we were beating teams by 20 points every night. But this year we've been far from that," Bird continued.

"I think the one thing about our team's ability to stay in games regardless of the score kind of speaks more towards we have a veteran team. So 20 points can go away like that. So we try to stay in every game, stay in the moment, and that's what we're doing and that's worked for us."

After Wednesday night's games, Washington heads to Atlanta for Game 2 on Friday night, while Seattle will be in Los Angeles, Saturday. Games 3, if necessary, will be back in Washington, Sunday, and Tuesday in Seattle.

-- Mel

Guru Musings: WNBA Playoffs A Conn. Job

(Guru's note -- it was late nite when the Guru attempted the math drill in the first item so any of you college PR types reading this and has an issue with the count, the Guru will accept corrections.)

By Mel Greenberg

The Connecticut Sun may have missed the WNBA playoffs for the second straight seasons but there will be a lot of UConn strewn across the various eight teams when the quest for the 2010 championship enters its final stages.

While killing some time waiting for Tuesday's teleconference interviews -- the Guru will be live in Washington and New York on Wednesday and Thursday nights -- the Guru decided to count roster affilations to see which schools fared the best in terms of aluma taking the floor for the conference semifinals.

The upper part of the count nearly reflects the pecking order in recent seasons in terms of showings in the weekly Associated Press poll and NCAA championships.

Connecticut edged out Tennessee 7-6 in terms of players though most of the Huskies are on teams in the West such as the trio of Sue Bird, Svetlana Abrosimova and Swin Cash on the Seattle Storm while Diana Taurasi and Ketia Swanier are on Phoenix.

Two former Tennessee players, however, are listed on rosters but are sidelined with injuries such as Los Angeles' Candace Parker and San Antonio's Chamique Holdsclaw.

Rutgers has five in the mix as does Duke, though Alana Beard has been sidelined all season in Washington following ankle surgery.

Maryland has a threesome and so does Stanford, while Georgia has four including the twin sister act of Kelly and Coco Miller with the Atlanta Dream.

Penn State, LSU, Auburn, UCLA, Florida State, Ohio State and Southern Cal each have two.

The Next Superstar?

Reports have Elizabeth Williams, considered the top prospect in the nation, hailing out of the Tidewater area in Virginia, making a visit to Knoxville and Tennessee.

The folks running the Lady Swish website that covers all schools in the Virginia area had posted that Williams would like to stay close to home.

That being the case, her desire would give credence to some Guru moles on the Penn State and Rutgers campuses reporting recent sightings of Williams who was making unofficial visits to determine which schools will land on her official list.

The MVP Vote

Since some Guru colleagues who vote in WNBA postseason balloting for awards have posted their selections on their websites and blogs, here are some pieces of the Guru's ballot without elaboration at this time.

MVP -- 1. Cappie Pondexter, NYL; 2, Tamika Catchings, Ind; 3. Lauren Jackson, Seattle; 4. Crystal Langhorne, Wash.; 5. Diana Taurasi, Phoenix.

All-WNBA First Team -- The group above except go with Sue Bird and move Taurasi to the second team.

Most Improved -- Leilani Mitchell, New York Liberty

That's all for now. -- The league managed to stretch the New York-Indiana Series to two off days between games so the Guru may have to kill some more time in a few days.

-- Mel

Monday, August 23, 2010

WNBA: Nothing Mystical About Washington's Finish

(Guru's note: This post wraps up Sunday's entire WNBA action and sets up the playoffs. A separate post underneath provides Guru breakout coverage of the New York-Connecticut game. Quotes in this story provided by Associated Press and team email reports)

By Mel Greenberg

Once upon a time in 2006 Crystal Langhorne playing for Maryland and Monique Currie playing for Duke were on opposite sides when Langhorne's Terrapins beat their Atlantic Coast Conference-rival Blue Devils in overtime to win the NCAA title.

A year later Matee Ajavon was on the Rutgers squad that upset top-seeded Duke in the Greensboro Regional semifinals in North Carolina, eventually advancing to the NCAA title game after they stayed alive when Blue Devils star player Lindsey Harding missed two foul shots with 0.2 seconds left to seal Duke's demise.

On Sunday they were all Washington Mystics teammates playing in Atlanta against the Dream in a powerful 90-81 win that gave them a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference with the New York Liberty (22-12) and the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs that begin on Wednesday.

Harding, who had displayed great eloquence in the Duke disaster after that game against Rutgers, put the Mystics in position to make franchise history Friday night when she hit a shot with 13 seconds to beat New York in the nation's capital and help create a three-way tie for first, including defending conference champion Indiana, going into Sunday's final action to determine seed order in the East.

Currie scored 20 points, while Langhorne, a native of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, had another double double with 18 points and 11 rebounds as Washington built a 24-point lead and then held its breath when the fourth-place Dream (19-15) cut the margin to seven points in the last minute.

Angel McCoughtry, last season's rookie of the year out of Louisville, had 19 points for the Dream, who now must open Eastern semifinals in Washington Wednesday night in the Verizon Center.

Atlanta had started the season with a 6-0 streak but hit several slumps, one late in the season, to lose out on getting potentially two game at home in the first round and finishing three games behind the Eastern frontrunners.

"I'm extremely proud of this team top-to-bottom," second-year Mystics coach Julie Plank said Sunday after Washington had finished the season with a six-game winning streak and extended its franchise record for most wins in a season. "We have great chemistry and play very well together."

Before the season began Washington was set back on its heels when four-time All-Star Alana Beard, another former Duke star, was lost for the summer due to ankle surgery.

But after the Mystics hit a low point of 13-10 in July they took off winning 9 of their last 11, including some impressive road triumphs to make more history.

Several weeks ago President Obama became the first sitting White House chief resident to attend a WNBA game when he saw the Mystics romp over the Tulsa Shock.

If the Mystics win the playoffs at least travel expenses will be cheap when they return Obama's visit for the presidential tribute made annually to the WNBA champion.

Though Washington's success has been almost a secret in a city agog over the exploits of Major League Baseball rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg and the arrival of former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb with the NFL's Redskins, the Mystics emerged Sunday night from the flight home to be greeted by a group of fans at the airport.

The Washington game Sunday in the WNBA was the only one of the four matchups decided pretty much well before the final buzzer as teams, especially in the East, were determined to squeeze every minute and even a few extra out of the fading ticks of the regular season.

New York's tie with Washington and the other home-court advantage in the East was saved when former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter scored 31 points, including the game-winner in overtime for an 88-87 win over the fifth-place Connecticut Sun (17-17)before a crowd of 15,989 in Madison Square Garden.

It was the second straight game that came down to the final moments for the Liberty.

"That's the way it is this year," Pondexter said. "Everybody is so competitive to win a championship this year, especially in the East."

The Liberty needed to win even though Indiana was edged by the Minnesota Lynx 83-79 in overtime in Indiana after the Fever had held a 13-point lead at the start of the fourth quartter.

New York, if it lost, would have had to open on the road Thursday night in Indianapolis because a second-place tie would have been barely broken in Indiana's favor on the third attempt which compares the two teams' records against all WNBA teams who were .500 or better in won-loss records.

The Liberty and Indiana tied in season play 2-2 and had identical conference records which are the first two standards used to snap deadlocks.

Instead, the Fever (21-13) fell to third a game back after having a chance a week ago to win the regular season title in the East again all alone before fading with a three-game losing streak.

Minnesota (13-21) finished in a fourth-place tie in the West with the Los Angeles Sparks 15 games behind the conference winning Seattle Storm (28-6). The Lynx were already eliminated entering the game in the Midwest when Los Angeles lost by a point at Seattle Saturday night. The Sparks won the season series with Minnesota with the key triumph occuring last week when veteran All-Star Tina Thompson hit a shot at the buzzer in Minneapolis.

Throughout the season the Lynx, who missed former Stanford star Candice Wiggins because of injuries most of the way, yielded a slew of double-digit leads and suffered narrow losses.

On Sunday, however, they reversed themselves as former LSU star Seimone Augustus scored 25 points, while Lindsay Whalen and Charde Houston each scored 16.

MVP candidate Tamika Catchings scored 17 points and had a season-high 14 rebounds for Indiana.

"We had our destiny in our hands and unfortunately we didn't take care of business and now we're No. 3," Catchings said.

Minnesota will go into the offseason with a major consolation prize. The Lynx are holding two of the four draft-lottery tickets that will likely result in the winner with the No. 1 pick selecting UConn senior sensation Maya Moore.

They hold their own pick as well as the playoff-eliminated Connecticut Sun's pick, which was obtained in April in a draft-day deal that saw former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin dealt for the 2011 first-round selection.

The Tulsa Shock (6-28), which finished last in the West 22 games behind Seattle and had been previously the mighty Detroit franchise that won three WNBA titles, own one of the other two lottery tickets. The last one belongs to the Chicago Sky (14-20), which finished last in the East eight games behind New York and Washington.

Though Connecticut, which went 1-4 against New York, had already been ousted, the Sun played as if they were postseason bound.

But there were several crucial mistakes -- former UConn star Renee Montgomery committing an offensive foul near the end of regulation and Tan White taking a short shot in the final seconds of overtime instead of getting in position to hit a trey that would have extended the game to a second extra period.

"Why we did what we did is what encapsulates what we did the entire season," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said of a bunch of losses that came off bad decisions.

Connecticut finished five games behind first and two behind fourth -- the final playoff slot though Atlanta would win that tie-breaker on season series competition.

Still, the Sun were actually better than defending WNBA champion Phoenix (15-19), which finished second in the West 13 games behind Seattle. That's one of the better performances for a team finishing fifth in the WNBA. It will be the second straight year Connecticut's season will have ended before the playoffs.

While Pondexter was rescuing New York, Sun rookie Tina Charles, the former UConn star who was the overall No. 1 pick of the last draft, had 21 points and 13 rebounds, extending her WNBA season record collection to 22 double doubles.

Charles finished her season on a downer for the first time since her sophomore year when UConn was upset by Stanford in the national semifinals. But soon she'll be heading for active duty under her former college coach Geno Auriemma training with the USA national team for next month's FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic.

In the other Sunday game, which had not much attached to it, San Antonio and Phoenix were already in playoff mode knowing they were already set to meet each other in a West semifinals game in Phoenix Thursday.

Sophia Young scored on a three-point play with 0.9 seconds left to give San Antonio an 83-82 win over the Mercury in Texas.

Michelle Snow scored 22 points for the Silver Stars (14-20), which finished third outright 14 games behind Seattle. DeWanna Bonner, a former Auburn star, had 20 points and 12 rebounds. San Antonio helped itself also on Friday night at home upsetting Indiana in a cross-conference game.

Phoenix, preparing for the playoffs, rested former UConn sensation Diana Taurasi, the reigning MVP candidate, for the second straight game, and also sat Penny Taylor. Former Temple star Candice Dupree also saw limited playing time.

The Mercury had Taurasi and Pondexter together a year ago before Pondexter went to New York in a three-team swap that included Chicago. The Phoenix record is the worst ever for a team finishing second but the Mercury could still be dangerous enough to stun Seattle.

The Storm wrapped up business Saturday night with the win over Los Angeles that enabled Seattle to go unbeaten at home at 17-0, one better than the L.A. group that was 16-0 in the Staples Center in 2001.

Seattle's win total equals the Sparks' 28 total for a season also achieved in 2001 when they won the first of two back-to-back WNBA titles.

The Playoff Match-Ups

This has had the makings of such a wide-open year, even with Seattle's record because of what much of it is built upon, that all achievements may be moot heading to the playoffs. That includes New York's recent frachise-record 10-game wins streak.

The New York streak did carry the Liberty from a shuffle between fifth and sixth to a share of the conference title with Washington.

"That's over now," Pondexter said. "Everybody is 0-0 now. So it's anybody's ball game. So we just have to come out and hopefully carry the momentum that we had, the energy and intensity into the playoffs."

Washington, which beat Atlanta 3-1 during the season, will open Wednesday and then head South for Game 2 Friday in the best-of-three series. A third game, if necessary, will be played back in Washington Sunday afternoon.

A revised format this year in the conference semifinals and finals has the team with the higher seed opening at home in a 1-1-1 setup. In the past the low seed opened at home in a 1-2 format. The WNBA championship series remains a best-of-five 2-2-1 format.

New York and Indiana will have plenty of rest if their series goes the limit. The two teams, which were 2-2 during the season, open Thursday in New York, travel to Indiana for Sunday's game and, if necessary, head back to New York for the deciding game next Wednesday.

In the West, Seattle went 5-0 against Los Angeles, which missed sensation Candace Parker most of the season because of a shoulder injury dating back to her last years at Tennessee leading the Vols to NCAA titles in 2007 and 2008.

The teams will open in the Pacific Northwest Wednesday, head to Los Angeles Saturday, and then, if necessary, back to Seattle on Tuesday.

Phoenix and San Antonio split their series 2-2. The Mercury will open defense of their title at home Thursday before both teams head to Texas for Saturday's second game. A deciding game, if necessary, will be played in the Arizona desert Monday.

Here is a combined day-by-day schedule with time starts listed for Eastern Daylight Time.


East: No. 4 Atlanta at No. 1 Washington, 7 p.m.
West: No. 4 Los Angeles at No. 1 Seattle, 11 p.m.


East: No. 3 Indiana at No. 2 New York, 7 p.m.
West: No. 3 San Antonio at No. 2 Phoenix, 9 p.m.


East: No. 1 Washington at No. 4 Atlanta, 7:30 p.m.


West: No. 2 Phoenix at No. 3 San Antonio, 1 p.m.
No. 1 Seattle at No. 4 Los Angeles, 3 p.m.


East: No. 4 Atlanta at No. 1 Washington (if necessary), 4 p.m.
No. 2 New York at No. 3 Indiana, 8 p.m.


West: No. 3 San Antonio at No. 2 Phoenix (if necessary), 10 p.m.


West: No. 4 Los Angeles at No. 1 Seattle (if necessary), 10 p.m.


East: No. 3 Indiana at No. 2 New York (if necessary), 7:30 p.m.

-- Mel

Sunday, August 22, 2010

WNBA: Pondexter Gets New York A First-Place Tie

(Guru's note: Updating to add a fact or two and revise the narrative. A second post above this one wraps up Sunday's entire WNBA action and sets up the playoffs.)

By Mel Greenberg

Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, a native of Chicago, last winter wanted out of the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury to return to the big city atmosphere provided in New York and reunite with her Olympic coach Anne Donovan.

For her part, with former UConn star Diana Tarausi left behind from what had been a winning tandem to two titles in three seasons, Pondexter promised to do all she could to return the Liberty to its glory days.

"We saw it from the beginning," Pondexter said Sunday after scoring 31 points and hitting the winning shot with 13.8 seconds left in overtime to give New York an 88-87 victory over the Connecticut Sun (17-17) at Madison Square Garden and a first-place tie with the Washington Mystics at 22-12.

New York, a perennial playoff participant which competed several times for the championship in the early years of the WNBA, set franchise records with the 22 wins and a 10-game win streak that was snapped Friday night in Washington by the Mystics on former Duke star Lindsey Harding's shot in the final half minute.

"They brought me in to lead these guys -- I wanted to be the leader, I wanted to give back to this organization, they definitely deserve it," Pondexter said. "It was special. It's obvious it was meant to be."

New York, which was on the sidelines a year ago in the postseason, will open here Thursday against the defending conference champion Indiana Fever (21-13), who were stunned at home by the Minnesota Lynx 83-79 in overtime and dropped to third a game behind.

Pondexter, likely to receive her share of MVP votes after Monday's deadline for WNBA postseason honors, has kept her end of the promise after New York obtained her in an offseason mega three-team trade that also involveed the Chicago Sky.

The 2006 Scarlet Knights graduate, who was taken second overall by Phoenix in the 2006 draft, has come a long way since her Hall of Fame Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer used to lament over Pondexter being "too nice" in not taking over games at crunch time.

That was then this is now, as the saying goes.

Pondexter's heroics saved New York's opportunity to gain a home court advantage in the revised 1-1-1 best-of-three format when the playoffs get under way this week.

"It was much more of a grind than we would have preferred," Donovan said of being extended by the Sun, which finished fifth five games behind the leaders and two behind Atlanta for the fourth and final playoff spot. "But Connecticut didn't want to go down without fighting, and they fought hard.

"Once again I felt we could have let it go -- at that point I don't know if our players knew what kind of meaning it had. But it came down to the end, and in overtime Cappie was Cappie and we rode her coattails to the win."

Donovan, who guided the Seattle Storm to a WNBA title in 2004 and the United States to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China in 2008, will be heading to the collegiate level after the Liberty's season to coach the Seton Hall women across the Hudson River in South Orange, N.J.

The former star of one of Old Dominion's national champions also took the former WNBA Charlotte Sting from a 1-10 start to the finals asgainst Los Angeles in 2001.

The final day of the regular season in the WNBA East began with a three-way tie for first, including Indiana. By the time the Liberty ook the floor, Washington, which edged New York at the finish Friday night, was way ahead at Atlanta against the fourth-place Dream (19-15) and held on for a 90-81 win.

That gave the Mystics the overall No. 1 seed in the East and also home court in the conference best-of-three 1-1-1 finals if they prevail in the first round against Atlanta. The series with the Dream begins Wednesday at the Verizon Center in Washington.

New York's home court, which will be at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the next three summers during Garden renovations, would have been safe if all three East leaders had won or lost Sunday.

But once Washington grabbed the top East seed, New York needed to beat the Sun, who were eliminated a week ago by Indiana, to open the playoffs here.

Though early Sunday night when Indiana lost at home to the Lynx in overtime, that setback would not have been helpful to the Liberty had New York also lost.

In terms of tie-breaking for second seed, New York tied Indiana in season play 2-2 winning big here last Tuesday in a blowout. That knocked out the first tie breaker. A loss Sunday would have given the Liberty the same conference record as the Fever, eliminating the second tie breaker.

Then it would have come down to comparable records against teams in the entire WNBA who were .500 or better and Indiana would have gained the No. 2 seed by a slight margin.

New York benefitted Sunday in winning by a point when Connecticut's Tan White, going for the basket, connected on a running 10-foot jumper with 1.2 seconds left instead of attempting a trey that could have sent the game into a second overtime.

"What we drew up was to take the first good shot in the first five seconds on the clock," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "If you have to take a layup in the first five seconds take it so we turnaround and foul.

"After five seconds, we would have taken a three. Why we did what we did is what encapsulates what we did for the entire season," Thibault added of a bunch of frustrating losses.

The Liberty had been extremely strong in the second half in going 14-2 since the All-Star break prior to Friday night's loss. They took an early 12-point lead at the outset of the third quarter before the Sun began to rally.

The crowd of 15,989 got nervous when the Sun grabbed a brief lead late in the fourth quarter and then were able to force overtime on Kara Lawson's 25-foot three-point shot and rookie Tina Charles' layup with 41.8 seconds left that made it an 809-80 tie.

But Pondexter was not done, scoring six of her points, including the game-winner, in the extra period.

Former Stanford star Nicole Powell added 14 points to the Liberty total, Janel Mccarville scored 12, and Leilani Mitchell had 13 points, including another strong attack from the perimeter making 3-of-4 three pointers.

Pondexter also connected on three treys.

Charles, a former UConn star and overall No. 1 draft pick who made another return Sunday to her native New York, finished an outstanding rookie debut with 21 points and 13 rebounds to set the new WNBA record for double doubles in a season at 22.

"It was disappointing," said Charles of the Sun elimination. She had spent the last two collegiate seasons in her final games winning national NCAA titles with unbeaten records. "This team has worked hard. We demand so much of each other. Unfortunately, we have to rollover and wait till next season.

"This league has a lot of talent," she said of the competition, especially in the East where the Sun's finish is one of the better ones for a fifth place team in terms of games behind the rest of the pack. "You can't expect the same thing that happened in college or high school. Every situation is going to be different and there are a lot of great players so I knew there were going to be a couple of losses."

Charles, however, won't be idle for too many days. She she will rejoin her college coach Geno Auriemma with the USA national team making preparations for next month's FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic.

Sandrine Gruda scored 18 points for the Sun, which had a better record than Western runnerup Phoenix (15-19). Renee Montgomery scored 17 points and Kara Lawson had 15.

-- Mel

WNBA: Eastern Trifecta Set For Thrilling Finish

(Guru's note: The post below this speaks to the draft lottery and covers the West standings and playoff picture.)

By Mel Greenberg

While a pack of dead horses off their losing won-loss records are playoff bound in the West, that's some kind of race with a livelier bunch who on Sunday will determine the Eastern seeds on the final of the regular season.

In a historic note in the 14th summer of the WNBA, a three-way tie for first exists among the Washington Mystics (21-12), New York Liberty (21-12), and the defending conference champion Indiana Fever (21-12).

Furthermore, although the playoff-bound Atlanta Dream (19-14) are stuck with the fourth seed after their hot start to the season, depending how everything plays out Sunday in one scenario coach Marynell Meadors' team can finish a game behind the frontrunning trio.

At worst, the Dream would be three games out of first, which would be the closest a team in that slot has finished illustrating what a great competition existed East of the Mississippi River.

At one point until the Chicago Sky (14-20) faded down the stretch, every team in the East had a winning record.

Chicago concluded its business Saturday night with an 84-71 loss at the Tulsa Shock (5-29), finishing either 7 or eight games out of first once Sunday's action results in the final standings.

The Sky will now join Tulsa and the Minnesota Lynx in the three-team, four-shot draft lottery competition for the 2011 No. 1 pick, likely to be talented UConn senior Maya Moore.

Minnesota has two chances, one of which is the Lynx's own courtesy of playoff elimination Saturday night when the Los Angeles Sparks were edged by Western regular season champion Seattle, 76-75, in the Pacific Northwest.

The other is courtesy of owning the Connecticut Sun's pick via draft-day trade in April when Minnesota picked former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin with the third overall pick and sent her to the Sun for what became a lottery first-round pick when Connecticut narrowly missed the playoffs for the second straight season.

The Sun (17-16), whose record is better than anyone in the West except Seattle, have a chance to be a spoiler of sorts Sunday when Connecticut visits New York in Madison Square Garden.

In what has been a wild week, Indiana had a chance to already lock up a second straight regular season title before losing solidy at New York Tuesday and then at San Antonio, which was after a West playoff berth, Friday.

Indiana on Sunday will host Minnesota, which as a result of playoff elimination, now only has pride and a chance to be a spoiler working for the Lynx (12-21) against the Fever, though technically standings-wide Minnesota can finish in a three-way tie for third.

The three-way deal was completed in the nation's capital Friday night when Washington edged New York in the final seconds, depriving the Liberty of clinching a top-two berth and leaping from the third seed to first pending Sunday's results.

New York had won 10 straight, moving from a fifth-and-sixth place shuffle with Chicago into playoff confention and then into Eastern title contention.

Another example of East toughness is Connecticut, better by won-loss record than any team not named Seattle in the West, can finish 3-5 games out of first, which is pretty notable for a fifth-place team.

They also will miss the playoffs by 1-3 games though Atlanta would own a tiebreaker.

But the Sun will have motivation to stick New York with something considering the way the Liberty has handled them to date, winning 3-of-4 in the series.

Washington will be at Atlanta where a win will give the Mystics the No. 1 seed outright, remarkable for a franchise that until last season was most tmes involved in high first-round draft picks courtesy of bad finishes.

But some of that has yielded the fruits of the present in a season that got off to a sour note when All-Star Alana Beard was sidelined before opening day.

Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne, a native of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia, has become a bonafide sensation her third season to the point USA Basketball was criticized last week for not selecting her to the national team player pool.

Washington, which could fall to the third seed Sunday, has via another high draft pick, Marissa Coleman, who is Langhorne's former Terrapins teammate. The big offseason steal was signing veteran Katie Smith, who had been with the former Detroit franchise.

New York made major offseason moves also, gaining former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, formerly with the WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury, in a three-team trade.

Former star Nicole Powell was added off the dispersal draft of the former Sacramento Monarchs, while veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin was a key free agent signee after she decided not to follow the former Detroit Shock franchise to Tulsa.

Furthermore Leilani Mitchell has emerged as one of the top three-point shooters in the league and is a frontrunning candidate for most improved player in terms of the WNBA postseason awards.

The Liberty are also motivated to send coach Anne Donovan out on a winning note. She will be heading across the Hudson River to South Oraqnge, N.J., as the new women's collegiate coach of Seton Hall.

Donovan, who guided the United States to the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China, also steered the Seattle Storm to the 2004 title. In 2001, her Charlotte Sting squad got off to a 1-10 start then reversed direction all the way to the chsmpionship finals.

As has been mentioned but in case this is your first reading, the top two teams in each conference will have home court advantage in the first round in a revised 1-1-1 format from the previous best-of-three arrangement that began in the lower seed's arena and then moved to the high seed's home for Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 3.

The same 1-1-1 will be used in the conference finals with high seeds opening at home. The championship series remains a best-of-five 2-2-1 setup.

A year ago, Indiana, which features Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, extended Phoenix to a fifth game in the most thrilling championship series in WNBA history.

By virtue of the time starts, Sunday will be like a round-robin Row Your Boat song.

Washington at Atlanta begins at 3 p.m., followed by New York-Connecticut at 4 p.m., and Indiana-Minnesota at 5 p.m.

If all three frontrunners lose, Washington still gets the No. 1 seed off of most wins in common games among the trio. New York at the moment holds the No. 2 seed in part because after splitting the season with Indiana, the Liberty have a better conference record.

But if both lose Sunday, that also becomes a tie in conference competition. It is unclear if they then go to the comparable records against teams .500 or better.

In that situation, Indiana is at 9-10. If New York lost to Connecticut Sunday, the Liberty would be at 9-11. If that tie-breaker is being used with a win over the Sun, then the Liberty would be 10-10. One reason the games aren't the same is that Indiana went 5-0 against Chicago, which doesn't count because the Sky don't have a winning record.

Anyhow, here's the various ways it could play out prior to Sunday night's conclusion to the regular season:

All three win: Washington (1), New York (2), Indiana (3)

All three lose: Washington (1), depending on tiebreaker New York 2-or-3, same form Indiana. The common records in the group, incidentally, are Washington 6-3, New York 4-5, Indiana 3-5 (one less because of the five-game series used only in a few cases for each team).

Washington wins, New York wins, Indiana loses: Wash. (1), NY (2), Indiana (3).

New York and Indiana win, Washington loses: NY (1), Ind (2), Wash. (3).

Washington and Indiana win: Wash. (1), Indiana (2), New York (3).

And after the sound and glory fade, relax, in a few days the Easterners will battle again in the real playoffs -- only every one will be 0-0 to start and anything can happen.

-- Mel