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.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: New York Stops L.A. Whose Parker Gets Injured

(Guru’s note: Information beyond the Liberty game site gathered from team and wire service reports).

By Mel Greenberg

NEWARK, N.J. –
The WNBA’s New York Liberty here in the Prudential Center and the Washington Mystics to the South in the Verizon Center Sunday afternoon finally gave their fans wins at home to cheer about for the first time in the early season.

The Washington triumph meant the Eastern Conference continued to beat up on the Western Conference as long as it was the Tulsa Shock on the losing end of the final score.

The New York win over the Los Angeles Sparks, avenging last week’s loss at the Staples Center in California, meant the Eastern Conference finally beat a Western foe not named the Tulsa Shock.

The departure of young superstar Candace Parker late in the third quarter here with what appears to be an injury in her right knee has L.A. fans suddenly hoping this doesn’t mean it’s déjà vu all summer again.

San Antonio seems heading for an All-Star season while also being a first time host of the All-Star game.

And an important two-game spurt on the weekend has the Indiana Fever playing like the good old days of 2009 when they advanced all the way to the WNBA finals before the Phoenix Mercury rallied from a 2-1 deficit to narrowly take Game 5 and the championship.

That’s some of the storylines that came out of the four games played on the league schedule and the Guru pretends to still be here at this late of night hour to tell the tale of the New York 77-67 win over Los Angeles when he is actually further south in New Jersey at his adopted headquarters on the other side of the Delaware River across from Northeast Philadelphia to produce this blog.

New coach-general manager John Whisenant pulled out all the stops and inserted a different start for the Liberty to win in its third try at home and tie the Chicago Sky with a 4-4 record just 1.5 games behind front-running Indiana.

The new start was making sure most of the Liberty players were given rides from their homes near the training center in Westchester County, N.Y., after a series of separate accidents on the way to the last game here – a loss to the Atlanta Dream – played fits with the team’s psyche though none of those involved suffered physical injuries.

“We controlled the tempo a little better,” he said of the difference from the last meeting with the Sparks (4-3), who fell to a fourth-place tie with the Phoenix Mercury two games behind Western leader San Antonio.

“We were able to make them get in a half court set which allows our defense to be more efficient,” Whisenant said. “It was much more up tempo and we stayed with them and had a chance to win.

He praised Los Angeles, with whom Whisenant had many battles in the West when he was general manager-coach of the former Sacramento Monarchs, which won the 2005 WNBA title but disbanded prior to last season.

“This isa great team, a talented team; it has three or four Olympians on it. We are pleased with the victory.”

Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter scored 22 points for the Liberty and in the closing seconds of the first half she exploded with eight off a pair of three-pointers and a quick steal for a layup and a 41-33 lead.

New York had trailed by nine points in the first quarter.

The Liberty are here for the next three summers or maybe less depending when their real Manhattan home at Madison Square Garden is finished being renovated.

“It’s home as we’re going to get,” Pondexter said of the temporary setup, though some of it is enhanced. “They’re doing renovations. We got this summer and next two summers to kind of get cozy here. We just have to make the most of it.”

The Liberty also dropped their home opener and it was to Indiana the following day after beating the Fever the previous night in Indianapoilis.

Because the trip to most of their homes would cut the turnaround time even shorter after arriving back East, the Liberty grabbed hotel rooms near the arena to get extra rest for that game.

“We need to establish that this is our home court and we need to get a good feel about it,” Whisenant said. “We need to establish we can win here. We need to win at home and make people afraid to come into Prudential to play the Liberty.”

They also need to make people less afraid to make the trip to Newark but the crowd of 7,625 – roughly the size of several full Jersey Transit trains – included former WNBA president Val Ackerman, her mom, and new president Laurel Ritchie who’s second trip here was just as a fan of the league she now directs.

A true home girl was part of the Liberty win in former Rutgers star Essence Carson, who grew up near here and scored 18 points, while Plenette Pierson had 16 points. Former Rutgers star Kia Vaughn grabbed eight rebounds.

“She’s just tremendous,” Whisenant said of Carson. “When Blaze (former general manager Carol Blazejowski) first drafted her out of Rutgers three or four years ago I tried every season as the general manager in Sacramento to trade for her because I think she’s a tremendous athlete with a great upside. And I think she’s improving and I told her that. I told her to be aggressive to score more and still be a great defensive player, which, initially, I liked so much about her.”

He had the same thinking earlier in the last decade when he picked former Scarlet Knight Chelsea Newton, now an assistant coach at Rutgers, who helped lead the Monarchs to the 2005 title.

“She told us, `You’ll love him, he’s a great coach,’” Carson said about Newtown discussing Whisenant’s hire to Liberty players. “He’s definitely defensive oriented. He doesn’t make you feel timid or out there just playing scared.”

The West had been 10-3 against the East after the San Antonio win earlier in the day with the overall losses all attributed to Tulsa. Then New York broke through against Los Angeles, Washington avenged a loss at Tulsa, and Indiana won at Minnesota.

Pondexter, who played with the Phoenix Mercury for four seasons and won two titles before her trade to New York last season, talked about the two conferences.

“The West is competitive but to me I think the East is very competitive,” she said. “You don’t see one team that sticks out. It’s all going like this. So it’s a good thing we were able to get the win against a good Los Angeles team.”

When Pondexter played for Phoenix, she had to run former Mercury coach Paul Westhead’s high-octane offense. Now she has had to learn an equally defensive style in Whisenant’s “White Line” stand.

“You have to have this energy and effort to play defense because if you don’t, you’re exposed as a player and so is the whole team. One person breaks down and his whole defense breaks down.”

The Liberty nearly broke down again after holding a double digit lead by as much as 17 points with 7 minutes, 9 seconds left in the fourth quarter and in the game and then allowing the Sparks to within eight with two minutes left before shutting the door.

“I tried to do a more efficient job of spacing their minutes,” Whisenant said of trying to avoid a loss to the Sparks again. “So I didn’t let Cappie or any of the players play until they were so exhausted that they gave up easy baskets.

“That causes momentum switches. I have had to learn this team and read their faces and body language when they are fatigued because all players want to play every minute when it comes down to it,” he continued.

“We did a better job of that. Our defense gives us a lot of our early offense with quick shots that we like to use with this team,” Whisenant said.

“They’re maturing but the reality is we’re a young team. Plenette is our oldest player at 29. Not only am I new with them but there’s a lot of inexperienced players here but also with some experienced ones.”

Speaking of experience, Los Angeles was hopeful of not repeating the experience of last season when the Sparks barely made the playoffs with a losing record having to go all but the first ten games without Parker, the former Tennessee superstar, who had shoulder surgery in her third season as a pro.

With Parker healed, Los Angeles had recently seemed the Sparks of old until what is now a third straight overall road loss and second straight on the front end of a seven-game journey that continues into Connecticut Tuesday night.

Then the start of July will include a swing through all the West opponents escept Minnesota, which is already 1-1 with the Sparks.

As for the game particulars Sunday Parker had 16 points and 11 rebounds while veteran Tina Thompson scored 14 for Los Angeles.

It was Parker’s limp to the sidelines with six minutes to go in the third quarter that became enough of a cause of concern that she was sent back to the West Coast for an MRI Monday to determine how serious the injury might be.

The Sparks website said an update will be provided when more details are known,

Without Parker, it could be another struggle the rest of the way considering how much improved the overall West is this season.

And there are also implications involving next summer’s USA Olympic squad but that topic should be put aside until more is known of Parker’s situation.

Ironically, Los Angeles was able to make Parker the overall No. 1 pick in 2008 – she had a year of eligibility left at Tennessee but she had been a redshirt as a freshman – due to the pregnancy of former Sparks all-timer Lisa Leslie whose absence in 2007 doomed the Sparks from their normal lofty heights in the West.

Parker then won both the rookie and most valuable player titles awarded by the WNBA but missed 2009 due to her own pregnancy.

Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom spoke after the game about Parker with not much knowledge at that time of the injury and also spoke of the overall problems handling the Liberty.

“Right now we don’t know, we’re going to get her an MRI and we’re just hoping for the best. It’s tough but we’re hoping everything is alright,” said Gillom, who was an assistant to UConn’s Geno Auriemma on last September’s USA gold-medal winning squad in the FIBA world championships in the Czech Republic.

“We’ve played without her before so we just have to focus on getting to the next game and playing hard and having people step up. She just said, ‘keep me in your prayers,’ and that’s’ all we can do for her right now and just hope for the best. She’s in good spirits, which is a good thing.”

As for the game itself, Gillom, whose team had suffered an overtime loss Friday night at Phoenix, said, "We’ll get it together at some point. We definitely have to eliminate our turnovers.

“We gave them 27 points by not taking care of the ball. The transition defense wasn’t very well tonight. They pushed the ball against us a lot and we didn’t play very well defensively; but we can’t dwell on this loss or the San Antonio loss. We have to think about Connecticut and just try to go into practice tomorrow and work on the things that we didn’t do well with tonight.”

If Parker misses extended time, she would be the second major WNBA star to do so in the last week. Seattle’s Lauren Jackson, who suffered a hip injury last Tuesday in the in in Tulsa is out at least three weeks and maybe more if therapy and rest are not helpful to her recovery.

Silver Stars Shine In Atlanta

Not much was expected of San Antonio during preseason outlook discussions about the WNBA conference chases while much was hoped from the Dream following Atlanta’s run to the league championship series and narrow setbacks in the 3-0 sweep by the Seattle Storm.

But it’s gone exactly the opposite way for both squads as proven by San Antonio Sunday in a 92-86 win over the Dream, which is in its fourth season as a franchise.

San Antonio remained best in the West at 6-1 for a 1.5 lead over Seattle and Minnesota. The start is the best in franchise history – a 15-year run that began with a previous existence as the Utah Starzz.

Atlanta fell to 2-7 in the Eastern basement a game behind the Washington Mystics.

Newcomer Jia Perkins, who came in an offseason deal from the Chicago Sky, had another big night, this time scoring 25 points. Rookie Danielle Adams, who slipped through the first round after being the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Women’s Final Four helping Texas A&M to the Aggies’ first title, scored 19 points.

Atlanta’s Coco Miller had 19 points, and Angel McCoughtry scored 15.

Dream coach Marynell Meadors was not dismayed afterwards.

“I thought our effort was absolutely perfect,” Meadors said. “In the last two minutes we had a chance to win the game, but we just didn’t win the game.”

Becky Hammon, the veteran All-Star cited a key to San Antonio’s improvement: “We’re not going to overwhelm people with out talent and athleticism, or whatever, but we have a lot of people that play well together, so that’s our key.”

Teams stayed away from Adams despite her play in the NCAA finals because they feared a lack of speed.

But Meadors saw enough to be impressed on the opposing side.

“When she puts the ball on the floor, it’s hard to guard her since she’s such a big player,” Meadors said.

San Antonio is at the Chicago Sky Tuesday night.

Fever Stymies Lynx

Indiana completed an impressive two-day sweep by topping the host Minnesota Lynx 78-75 in Minneapolis after stopping Connecticut on Saturday night.

“Minnesota’s got a really, really good team and for us to come in here – after a game last night and flying in this morning – and to play with as much intensity as we did is a real plus,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said.

The Fever (6-3), who host Phoenix Tuesday, moved to a game ahead of idle Connecticut and 1.5 games ahead of Chicago and New York.

Katie Douglas paced the visitors with 22 points and hit the tie-breaking shot with just over a minute left in the game.

Minnesota (5-3), which fell to third place 1.5 games behind the Silver Stars, overcame an 11-point deficit in the first half and went ahead by as point at the break.

But the Fever took over in the second half and All-Star Tamika Catchings finished with 17 points for Indiana.

Still, the Lynx had a chance to tie when Seimone Augustus had been fouled by Douglas while attempting a trey with eight seconds left.

Augustus missed the first shot, made the second, then tried to miss the third to give Lynx players a chance to tie the game with a shot, but her attempt rattled into the net.

“That’s just how the game goes sometimes,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “You’re trying to miss and you make it. You ‘re trying to make it and you miss. That’s how it goes.”

Rookie Maya Moore, the overall No. 1 draft pick out of UConn who had her worst effort as a pro in her previous game with just four points against Seattle, bounced back with 21 points for Minnesota.

Moore, however, after scoring 17 points in the first half, got caught in foul trouble and missed half of the third period. She then made 2-of-6 shots in the fourth and had three turnovers.

“We all took turns at the end not making plays,” Reeve said of the nuances around the Lynx. “Maya had a couple of turnovers in there, but there’s nobody that’s harder on Maya than herself.”

Candice Wiggins, the former Stanford star who missed most of the last WNBA season because of an injury, shrugged off the Lynx two-game losing streak after winning five straight.

“Our (swagger) hasn’t been shot down -- just weakened,” Wiggins said. “

In fact, I think teams should fear that because – we have so many weapons and so much confidence.”

Washington Rules Tulsa

In a game between the two worst WNBA teams in terms of wins, Washington (2-5) stayed within three games of Indiana in the East by beating the Tulsa Shock 83-63 for the Mystics’ second game of the season.

The Mystics, missing former Duke stars Monique Currie with an offseason knee injury and Alana Beard, who is day-to-day with a foot sprain, have returned to struggle in the division after ttying New York for the regular season title with a best-ever 22 wins and then won the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed.

Washington’s four-game losing streak ended as former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne scored 23 points, newcomer and former Tennessee star Nicky Anosike scored 13 points with 10 rebounds, former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon scored 21, and former Maryland star Marissa Coleman scored 13 and grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds.

“When you have four losses in a row, that can easily turn into five, six, seven,” said Anosike, who was with Minnesota last season. “I think we were just desperate and played desperate tonight.”

The Shock, who had the worst record a year ago, fell to 1-8.

Australian Liz Cambage, the second overall pick in the draft, had scored 15 points and veteran Sheryl Swoopes had 11 for Tulsa, loser of 14 straight road games dating back to last season.

Washington is missing four starters from last season and Beard, who did not play in 2010, has yet to dress this time around.
“We’ve been growing up a little day by day,” said Washington coach Trudi Lacey, who was promoted in the offseason. “I’m not a mother, but it is like raising children, so it was good to get a win.”

-- Mel

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