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.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

WNBA: Rutgers Trio Advance Liberty Past Fever

By Mel Greenberg

NEW YORK --
New York Liberty All-Star Cappie Pondexter says the time has come to start spreading the news about 6-foot-4 center Kia Vaughn, her former Rutgers teammate who she has reunited with here this season in the WNBA.

"If you didn't know Kia Vaughn before you know her now," Pondexter said with a big smile about Vaughn's performance off the bench Tuesday night.

Vaughn had 13 points and seven rebound, helping the the second-seeded Liberty (22-12) to a 77-74 victory over the third-seeded Indiana Fever (21-13) and a spot in the Eastern Conference finals against the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream (19-15). The best-of-three competition will begin here Sunday night in Madison Square Garden.

The Western best-of-three finals begin Thursday night in Seattle where the No. 1 seeded Storm (28-6) will meet the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury, who finished second with a 15-19 losing record.

Vaughn, a second-year pro who was picked in the first round last year, became the latest version of those shows on nearby Broadway where the understudy is inserted on short notice and quickly becomes a box office attraction.

The local girl from Bronx, who had seen limited action this season, got extended time to make good because starting center Janelle McCarville sprained her left ankle at the morning shootaround.

"I'm so happy for her," New York coach Anne Donovan said after the Liberty took the decisive Game 3 of the conference semifinal series and shortened Indiana's reign over the East to one season. "There is nobody that has worked harder this year and not really see the results.

"Last game, i thought she had good minutes at Indiana which fortunately gave her confidence coming into the game tonight and with Janel out we had to have her in the rotation. I think she surprised herself with how well she played and I know she surprised Indiana."

Vaughn admitted that she had been disappointed with her own work during the season and was unaware how much she might be needed Wednesday night.

"No one told me but I'm happy because I did something good," Vaughn said.

New York, which finished the regular season in a tie for first with the Washington Mystics, got the No. 2 seed and other home-court advantage in the East.

The Liberty, who retain the home court advantage for the Eastern finals as the highest-surviving seed, grabbed the opener against the Fever 85-73 here last Thursday and then lost at Indiana 75-67 on Sunday.

As has been characteristic of New York on the back half of the season highlighted by a franchise-record 10-game win streak, the Liberty rallied near the finish Wednesday night just when it looked like the Fever might win a playoff series for the first time as a lower seed.

New York, which trailed 47-46 at the half, fell behind by as many as seven points in the third quarter before moving closer to Indiana at 66-63 at the end of the period.

Then, with Vaughn continuing to be a defensive force, the Liberty excited the energized crowd of over 16,000 by moving into contention in the closing minutes.

Pondexter, who finished with 30 points, wowed the home folks with a shot from behind the basket as she ran out of bounds for a 76-74 lead with 27.9 seconds remaining in regulation.

"All-Star players step up .., this is their time of year," Donovan said. "Marquee players and MVP players ... this is their spotlight time and Cappie did that again tonight."

Fever coach Lin Dunn was incredulous over Pondexter's shot.

"I don't know how she made that shot," Dunn said. "I did not think it was going to go in."

Fever All-Star Tamika Catchings, who will now head to training with the USA Basketball women's national team for this month's World Championships, then missed a layup.

New York gained possession but then lost the ball on a five-seconds inbounding violation with 22.5 seconds left.

Catchings, who had 21 points, missed another layup that would have tied the game. Essence Carson, another former Rutgers star, blocked the shot on the play and Vaughn grabbed the rebound.

Carson has stepped up as three-point shooting ace Leilani Mitchell, voted by the media the WNBA's most improved player, has struggled with back problems during the playoffs.

Vaughn was fouled by Katie Douglas and then made one of two free throws before Indiana's Briann January missed a long shot with 2.8 seconds remaining and Carson grabbed the rebound.

Carson, who is from nearby Newark, N.J., across the Hudson River, scored 11 points while veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a free-agent signee in the offseason, had 11 rebounds.

Katie Douglas had 24 points for Indiana and Ebony Hoffman scored 11.

Indiana's Dunn took issue with the officiating and expressed disappointment that the Liberty were not assessed fouls on either attempt by Catchings.

"I really thought she was fouled both times," Dunn complained. "It's unfortunate that the players did not get to finish the game on their own."

Catchings tried to avoid controversy saying she should have made both layup attempts. She also said the Fever made too many mistakes during the season in defense of their Eastern title, which cost them gaining one of the home courts in the conference semifinals.

Indiana entered the final week of the regular season with a chance to gain a second straight No. 1 seed but went on a three-game losing streak that began here with a rout by the Liberty. The Fever finished a game behind Washington and New York.

Vaughn will be needed in the East finals to help contend against the ahtletic Dream who finished fourth after holding first place in the front part of the season.

"Kia came back from the dead tonight," Rutgers Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer beamed outside the dressing room areas after the game about her former center who helped lead the Scarlet Knights to the NCAA title game in 2007.

Tammy Sutton-Brown, a former Rutgers center, plays for Indiana but was limited in her contributions against New York in the final game.

Besides the Rutgers alums who played, more WNBA players with Scarlet Knights DNA were in the house to cheer their teammates from college such as the Washington Mystics' Matee Ajavon and the Chicago Sky's Epiphanny Prince who was named to the All-Rookie team Tuesday that was selected by the league's coaches.

"Look at them all," Stringer said with the air of a proud parent. "Take all of them and (former Uconn star) Tina Charles (rookie of the year) over there and how many championships would we win."

Well, Pondexter has already won two with Phoenix in the last three seasons after being picked No. 2 overall in the 2006 draft. She came to the Liberty in the offseason via mega three-team deal that saw former Temple star Candice Dupree move from the Chicago Sky to the Arizona desert.

"The common thing among those teams and this one is team work," Pondexter said.

New York's win means the Liberty will get at least two more chances to be home, if the series with Atlanta goes the distance, before moving to the Prudential Center in Newark the next three summers while the Garden undergoes rennovations.

Donovan is also departing as the new coach of Seton Hall once New York finishes its performance.

But as colleges get under way for the Fall semester this week, Donovan said right now her mind is simply focused on New York.

Dunn noted the other two additions the Liberty picked up in former Stanford star Nicole Powell from the dispersal of the former Sacramenton Monarchs, and Plenette Pierson via trade early in the season with the Tulsa Shock.

Pierson and McWilliams-Franklin won WNBA rings playing for the Shock prior to its move from Detroit last winter. Powell won a title with Sacramento in 2005.

"I'd certainly like to play New York without those four," Dunn said.

-- Mel

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