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.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bing-Oh!: S-2, S-10, S-15, S-20, S-30 = Seattle WNBA Sweep

(Guru's Note: Ok, had to do a little resting here in Atlanta and then supplement, but try not to duplicate much of WNBA Finals coverage. Also, a collegiate post is under this one.)

By Mel Greenberg

ATLANTA --
When the WNBA Seattle Storm decided to get a sponsorship for their jerseys, Microsoft's Bing, the computer giant's search engine, became an approriate choice.

All season long, whatever the questions, coach Brian Agler's squad continuously came up with answers.

As a result, Seattle held off a late Atlanta Dream rally here Thursday night to gain another slim win, this time 87-84, in the Philips Arena to complete a 3-0 sweep and win the Storm's second WNBA title.

The team that was the best all year long -- 28-6 in the regular season -- was absolutely perfect in the postseason, going 7-0 in the conference semifinals and finals and then finishing the job completing a perfect 20-0 record at home since May before coming here to claim the title.

That said, Atlanta (19-14) may have been the fourth seed out of the rugged Eastern Conference, but the Dream proved in this series that as tightly contested as the summer race was on the right side of the Mississippi River, Atlanta, in its third year of existence, was probably the best of the bunch.

"If you sit still and are satisfied with what we did this year, chances are you won't be back here again," general-manager coach Marynell Meadors said after the game with an eye to the future.

Indiana All-Star Tamika Catchings thought she and her teammates did exactly that and said as much after last year's Eastern titlists, who on the road had taken the Phoenix Mercury to the final minutes in Game 5, were eliminated several weeks ago by the revitalized New York Liberty in the Eastern semis.

Former Louisville star Angel McCoughtry, the 2009 rookie of the year, had 35 points for Atlanta against the Storm and now she and Meadors will head overseas to join USA coach Geno Auriemma, also UConn's head coach, for the World Championships which begin next week in the Czech Republic.

Erika DeSouza had 10 points and 14 rebounds, while Iziane Castro Marques had 21 points for the Dream. Coco Miller, a former Georgia star, had 15 points and her twin sister Kelly scored six for Atlanta's only points off the Dream bench.

Seattle's Sue Bird and Swin Cash are heading overseas to join their former college coach, while Lauren Jackson will be going to shore up the chief threat to USA, which is the Australian team that got revenge in Spain in another exhibition game after losing in Hartford, Conn., last weekend.

"It's going to be tough playing against Sue, but we've done it for the last 10 years, we can do it again," Jackson said with a sigh in her voice.

While McCoughtry had the big individual game and nearly tied the score at the finish, the balanced Seattle attack with help off the bench was telling.

All five starters were in double figures and, if you haven't guessed it, are represented in the headline of this post by their uniform numbers leading to the other Bingo skill of a perfect lineup to win titles.

Cash (#2), who won a pair of titles in Detroit to go with some NCAA crowns and an Olympic gold medal, had a team high 15 points and hit some critical three-pointers to fuel a Storm rally in the third quarter.

Jackson (#15) and former North Carolina star Camille Little (#20) had 15 points each, while former Penn State star Tanisha Wright (#30) had 13 points and Bird (#10) had 14 points.

Additionally, former Auburn star Le'coe Willingham had seven points off the bench.

Willingham, originally signed with the Connecticut Sun, actually has a personal back-to-back in titles, having signed last season as a free agent with Phoenix and then again in 2010 with Seattle.

"Technically, that's right(about back-to-back), but that's what moves my decisions," Willingham said of her free agency contracts. "I want to win championships. I really believe in this team and thought what we did tonight could happen when I signed here."

Atlanta was 6-0 and getting early season hype when the Dream first visited Seattle at the beginning of June in a game the Storm won decisively to go 6-1 and then throw the throttle down against the rest of the league.

"That was definitely a time when our team came together and got stronger," Willingham said. "We all got in (from winter ball overseas) a little bit late and it took a little time for the new people to get used to each other. But after that game we picked up a lot of confidence and everybody worked hard and stayed calm and we never got ahead off ourselves.

"We worked hard, got here and took care of business."

Seattle, then coached by Anne Donovan, won a title in 2004, beating the Connecticut Sun at the Storm's Key Arena in a decisive Game 3 in the Northwest.

Bird and Jackson, who won her third regular season MVP title this season to go with the playoffs WNBA vote, were on that team but since then had to suffer first-round playoff exists in every season since until 2010.

"I judge myself as a player based on winning," said Bird, the 2002 overall No. 1 draft pick who won titles at Christ the King in New York City before experiencing NCAA success at UConn. "That's how I judge myself, and to not win in five years really, really hurt.

"So to be sitting here now and with the playoff disappointment and the ownership change, everything that's gone on, coaching change, player change, to sit here right now, I can't even describe it. And I know this is going to last a full year, so that's the best part. I don't have to think about this until next May."

Moving Upscale

The Seattle organization celebration in a private room in the Westin Hotel here late Thursday night into the wee hours of Friday morning was a little more upscale than the first time Storm coach Brian Agler got to enjoy a celebration of winning a women's pro championship.

Back in the late winter of 1996-97 he guided the Columbus Quest to the first championship of the former American Basketball League -- the Quest repeated the following season -- and afterwards the festivities took place in a fly-by-night motel in the suburbs near Ohio State's campus.

"This is calm," Agler smiled Thursday. "That group was much wilder than this one."

That night Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson refused to let go of the trophy, clutching it wherever she went, including .. well, you know.

"You have to understand, this is the first thing I've ever won," said Johnson, who played at South Carolina.

Andrea Lloyd Curry, a former Texas star who eventually became inducted into the same class as the Guru in 2007 at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., made sure no one suffered from thirst.

One big difference -- Thursday night here it was time to celebrate success without regard to anything else. This organization, including its recent new ownership which saved the team in 2008, didn't have to worry about anyone knowing what it accomplished.

Back in Columbus, a hush came over the little motel room each time ESPN's SportsCenter came on the TV set as the contingent awaited to see if their win over the Richmond Rage, which had Dawn Staley, was going to be mentioned. There was a loud cheer each time it was.

"There's a lot of similarities we had this year with this team and some of those Columbus Quest teams because of the mental toughness," Agler, who once coached the UMKC women, said.

"Their ability to play together, the leadership, and veteran players who step up."

That Quest team also had Nikki McCray, a former Tennessee star, the first year before the Olympian jumped to the WNBA, and Val Still, a native of South Jersey who starred at Kentucky.

Washington Mystics All-Star veteran Katie Smith, also an Olympic gold medalist who led Ohio State to the NCAA title game in 1993, was on that team.

"We have a couple of players on this team who are probably the best talents in the world, but some of the other players, the Tanishas, the Swins, and Camille, and Le'coe, they have that blue collar mental toughness and were sensational."

Incidentally, Karen Bryant, who serves as chief executive officer in Seattle played a general manager's role for the Seattle Reign in the ABL.

UConn DNA

Of course, it was helpful for the Storm to have a sizeable dose of UConn DNA in Cash, Bird, and Svetlana Abrosimova, the Russian native who had played in Minnesota, but was out of action last year.

"One thing I've always found out about the players from Connecticut, the ones I've coached and even the ones from Tennessee," Agler said. "They have high regard for their college coaches, they have a lot of pride in their program, they know what it's like to work hard and they take a lot of pride in their defense.

"They understand they have to defend to win championship."

Bird talked about playing for Agler.

"Brian, his style of coaching, he went and got players who would compliment him and I have so much trust in Brian -- the way he emphasizes defense -- that was our identity, that was what won us every game this year, and the way he runs our offense, he just knew how to get our team clicking on all cylinders.

"He knew what to say, when to say it, at all times. I don't think I ever played for a coach who was so good at drawing up late-second game plays," said Bird, who had a buzzer-beater to eliminate Phoenix in Game 2 of the Western finals and another one in the opening game of the WNBA championship finals.

"He's the real deal and that's why he's coach of the year."

The moment was special for Abrosimova, who helped win several games during the regular season to help keep Seattle's won-loss record one of the best in the history of the league.

"I've won a lot of titles in Europe but in the States I won only one NCAA title," she said. "It took over nine years. And you know hard it gets. Every year it's difficult. Just to get it, it sums up that it's worth everything," she said.

"You know, I'm the only Russian who ever won a professional title (in the U.S.) -- my mom just told me that -- and I'm so excited because I was representing my family, college and everything and I'm just happy to play with Sue and Swin again and do it together.

"I took a summer off to re-evaluate certain things, take a break -- you never know, you do want to come back and win a championship, but I'm telling you, it's hard, there are so many great players who never won and you get with this team and they're so good, the starting lineup is amazing -- mature players, smart, it just worked out."

Cash, who had her struggles and injuries in recent years, was seen emotionally overcome during the trophy presentation.

"Everything just started coming back," Cash said of her thoughts on the stand. "The injuries, the things I've been blessed to be back on the stage again. The feeling is just unbelievable.

"It wasn't about just me. It was about my family and everyone who helped me get to this point."

Mighty Macs' Nemesis

At the hotel party the Guru was introduced to Dawn Trudeau and Ginny Gilder, two of the four women who helped keep the team in Seattle, purchasing it when the parent NBA Seattle Sonics left for Oklahoma to become the Thunder.

He also chatted with Lauren Jackson's mother -- Maree -- who believe it or not the Guru covered as a player when she and sister Australian Julie Groz played for the LSU team in 1977 that upset Immaculata in the semifinals of the former Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament.

"I still here from Julie," Mrs. Jackson said.

That season was also the first for what became the Associated Press women's poll.

Within days of the championship, won by Delta State, Mighty Macs coach Cathy Rush announced her resignation noting the impact Title IX and athletics scholarships would have against the lesser available financial resources at the small, catholic, women's school (it is now co-ed).

Rush supported the Title IX legislation and knew it was going to be great for women's athletics but at the same time she knew of the adverse effect it would have at the school located in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.

Darsch Gets A Title

"Guess I finally got one," Seattle assistant coach Nancy Darsch smiled at a table during the hotel reception when approached by the Guru.

Darsch was the first coach of the New York Liberty in the WNBA and guided the team to the first WNBA title game, losing to the Houston Comets in the Lone Star State in 1997.

She later coached the Washington Mystics and has been a WNBA assistant elsewhere, as well as at the collegiate level.

Darsch was also a longtime head coach at Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the 1993 NCAA title game won by Texas Tech when Sheryl Swoopes rewrote the NCAA Finals record book for individual scoring.

To advance to the title game, Texas Tech beat Vanderbilt, coached then by Jim Foster whose Commdores were ranked No. 1 during the season.

Darsch's team in overtime beat Big 10 rival Iowa, then coached by C. Vivian Stringer, who is at Rutgers. Ironically, Foster is now at Ohio State and has also coached at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, his hometown area.

The Seattle front office also includes former Virginia star Jenny Boucek, director of player development and scouting, who was an assistant on the Storm's 2004 titlists and later was the head coach of the former Sacramento Monarchs.

Boucek said she received a note of congratulations from her Cavaliers college coach Debbie Ryan soon after the game ended.

Asked if she might pursue the vacant Chicago Sky or New York Liberty vacant coaching positions, of which she would be an outstanding candidate at either franchise, Boucek said she was going to do some vacation travel around for now, visiting Florida and, perhaps, Tennessee.

Missy Bequette, director of basketball operations, is a longtime veteran and was an assistant to the Indiana Fever's Lin Dunn when Dunn was coaching the Portland Power, challenging Agler's Columbus team back in the ABL era.

Seattle's Place in History

Several Storm front office types asked the Guru if this Seattle team might be the best of all time in WNBA history.

The Guru went conservative, initially, saying the next few years had to pass to offer perspective and, who knows, in that time, perhaps the Storm might get a little dynasty going to add to their case.

That Houston Comets team in 1998 was pretty good, also, although clearly now we are in a different era.

But again this team might be there right now as definitely one of the greatest considering that three of its starting players -- Jackson (Olympic medals and two WNBA titles), Bird (NCAA titles, WNBA titles, Olympic Gold), and Cash (NCAA titles, WNBA titles, Olympic Gold Medals) right now all have the resumes to become Hall of Famers, definitely in Knoxville at the Women's Hall and potentially in Springfield, Mass., at the Naismith Hall of Fame.

Of course, off that Houston team, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke just got inducted into Naismith, while Swoopes, the former Texas Tech star, and Los Angeles Sparks veteran Tina Thompson are also of the same mold.

And who knows? Considering the three titles he coached, somewhere in all that there might be a place for Agler also.

-- Mel









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