Womhoops Guru

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

Thursday, August 19, 2010

WNBA:Streaking Liberty Earns First-Place Tie

By Mel Greenberg

NEW YORK --
Twenty minutes into the New York Liberty's cross-conference game with the woeful Tulsa Shock Thursday night in Madison Square Garden it was apparent that the trap game heading into a big final weekend of the regular season might ensnare all coach Anne Donovan's team has achieved since the WNBA's All-Star break.

But New York once again found a way to spring itself free in the second half and ended up sprinting to the finish with a 95-85 victory. The Liberty (21-11) pulled into a first-place tie in the East with the defending conference champion Indiana Fever after extending the franchise's record win streak to 10 games. They are also 14-2 since the All-Star break.

The game was only one on the WNBA card Thursday night.

New York, which had spent much of the early season languishing in the fifth and sixth spots slightly behind the playoff contenders, is in position to win its first regular season conference crown since 2002.

But hold that thought for a few minutes because there is much to discuss and by the end of Friday night things may clarify throughout the league and maybe not.

The win here against the Shock (5-28) enabled New York to tie its season record for most wins, which occurred in 2001 at 21-11 when the league schedule was two less games.

New York came into the game against what had been previously the lofty Detroit franchise which won three WNBA titles.

But the roster of a year ago has been dispersed through free agency, decisions not to play and trades.

That made the situation the kind that might be a pitfall, especially for the Liberty who had just finished disecting defending WNBA champion Phoenix last Saturday and then the Fever on Tuesday night, both here in the Garden.

"I was a bit disappointed," Donovan said about the first half in which her team trailed by as many as seven points. "I thought that we would come out really focused and keep our energy, but the reality is that we just didn't come in as aggressive.

"The game wasn't as big as the Indiana game or the emotion behind the Phoenix game so it was a little bit of a letdown tonight but the good thing was that we still came out on the winning end."

Donovan also shuffled the lineup a bunch to avoid player fatigue going into Friday night's major showdown in the nation's capital against the Washington Mystics (20-12), who are a game behind the conference leaders with two games remaining for each WNBA team except Atlanta (19-14), which has one Sunday at home against the Mystics. The Dream have also clinched the playoffs though its seed is still open-ended pending the other East results.

Former Stanford star Nicole Powell had 20 points for New York Thursday night, former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter scored 16, while the Liberty also got double digit scoring from Taj McWilliams-Franklin (15 points), Leilani Mitchell (14), and reserves Plenette Pierson (12) and Sidney Spencer (10).

Shanna Crossley, who played at Tennessee, as did New York's Spencer, scored 21 points for the Shock, fueled by a 5-for-5 effort on three-point attempts.

Marion Jones, the former track star whose career ended in disgrace over steroids, is playing for the Shock after having been a star in the sport as a freshman at North Carolina when the Tar Heels won the NCAA title in 1994 on Charlotte Smith's three-pointer against Louisiana Tech at the buzzer.

She and Shock coach Nolan Richardson, who guided the Arkansas men to an NCAA title, have had great memories of the Garden.

Jones had triumphs racing in the Millrose Games here in indoor track.

"To be able to say I played at the Garden, for anybody who is a sports fan it's a dream come true," Jones said Thursday night. "For the many times as I have been to the Garden to see basketball games, or concerts or to run track meets. To step out there and play it's nice and exciting. I feel like a little girl looking up at the banners and I realize the history and people who have walked through these halls and walked and performed. Now I can say I have a little bit of that, it's nice."

Richardson also coached the Tulsa men's team at the collegiate level and his first year with the Golden Hurricanes he steered them to the National Invitational Tournament title here, beating Syracuse 86-84 in overtime in 1981.

"The two of us have had some great memories, here," Richardson said of himself and Jones. "I was hoping we could have had another great moment tonight beating the Liberty.

"They got people who can do some things," Richardson said of New York. "When you got people who can shoot the ball from deep, that's incredible. They made some deep shots, if they don't, it might be a different story. But they make them.

"They also got a good rebounding team."

Although it took a while for all those traits to come together, in the end, it's all about getting the `W,' McWilliams-Franklin noted.

"Teams are going to come out against us," the veteran said. "Right now we're the team to beat and who doesn't want to beat the team that's on top.

"Once again we showed a lot of character and pulled through. I said at the beginning of the season, ugly wins, cute wins, what's the difference? At the end, they only look at the record and they never look at how they won. Because if that was the case, a lot of people wouldn't have wins, so we'll take it."

To get things done and make a run to and through the postseason, it is important to have war horses. McWilliams-Franklin and Washington's Katie Smith are two such individuals who were part of the former Shock greatness and will be on opposite sides Friday night.

At this hour, the playoff seed position in the East, where the four participants have been determined, are wide open, while the West is involved in a three-way tie for third among the Minnesota Lynx (12-20), San Antonio Silver Stars (12-20), and Los Angeles Sparks (12-20). Only two can qualify.

Indiana will be at San Antonio Silver Friday night, hoping Washington can help the Fever out in the race with New York. Unfortunately for Indiana, the Mystics are also trying to help themselves out and would like the Texas hosts to handle the Fever.

The top two teams in each conference earn home court advantage in the revised 1-1-1 first round, while the top two surviving teams earn home courts likewise for the conference finals. The WNBA championships series remains a best-of-five 2-2-1 arrangement.

Going into Friday night's action, the picture is as muddy as the National Football League appears when tie-breaking scenarios multiply down the stretch.

A New York sweep -- the Liberty finish up hosting the eliminated Connecticut Sun (16-16) Sunday -- breaks the tie with Indiana, if the Fever win their last two games. Though the season series was a 2-2 split, the Liberty would have a better conference record.

However, if both lose their final two games, they would still be tied but it is too early to say who wins out between Indiana and New York because they would have to go to a third tie-breaker, which is best record against teams .500 or better. And Washington, at this oour could make it a three-way deal in first going into Sunday.

As for the third tie breaker between Indy and New York, that's still open ended because both Connecticut (16-16) and Phoenix (15-17) or either/or could still join the list of those teams at .500 or more. The Sun will be at the Chicago Sky (14-18) Friday night seeking to avoid sinking to a tie for last.

Now if Washington wins Friday, New York would drop to third with one game to go -- the Mystics finish at Atlanta Sunday -- because the Mystics would win the New York series 3-2. The Liberty do clinch second Friday with a win.

Washington could still finish first if Indiana takes a loss.

In terms of New York, the Liberty will be playing two of their biggest WNBA rivals and Connecticut will come here Sunday itching to be a spoiler of sorts after the grief the Liberty caused the Sun this season winning 3-1 in the previous four meetings.

"Everybody has to play (Friday)," McWilliams-Franklin said of her teammates needing to be on the ready against the Mystics. "And Connecticut will never come in here dead.

"Pride will never stop you from being a player and doing the best you can," she added. "I don't care if your record is 2-40. No team never goes out and says, `Hey, we're going to get beat today because we're not in the playoffs.'

"Right now all we think about is the Washington Mystics -- it's their last home game and big crowds are always there," McWilliams-Franklin said.

Over in the West, the Seattle Storm (26-6) and Phoenix have locked up the top two spots in the conference and meet Friday night in Phoenix in what could be a preview of the Western finals.

In the main West attraction, the Minnesota Lynx (12-20) will be at the Los Angeles Sparks (12-20) and it is a must-win for the road team because the Sparks already have the season series. If the Lynx get the one-win advantage, the Los Angeles-at Seattle game Saturday night will let them know if they have to beat Indiana on the road Sunday or not to stay in the hunt.

If San Antonio beats Indiana, they may still have to win at home Sunday against Phoenix but the Silver Stars do have the tie-break with Los Angeles if the two are tied for fourth. In a three-team finish for third, Minnesota loses out. The Lynx do have an advantage over the Silver Stars.

As for Atlanta and its final game at home Sunday against Washington -- well let's resume this discussion late Friday night after the rsults from the next set of precincts arrive.

-- Mel

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