WNBA: Nothing Mystical About Washington's Finish
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.