Guru's WNBA Report: Atlanta Stops Washington At The Finish
By Mel Greenberg
WASHINGTON – The home team Washington Mystics were coming off of two days rest and a landmark come-from-behind victory on the road Sunday night overcoming a 24-point deficit that existed in the second-half before subduing the Los Angeles Sparks in overtime.
The visiting Atlanta Dream were coming off the front part of a rare back-to-back, the scourge of WNBA scheduling, in which both games on successive days had late morning starts to allow hundreds of young summer campers to attend.
Furthermore both teams that had been feel-good stories in 2010 advancing to the playoffs have been mired in the bottom of the East.
If one took all those components to predict the outcome of Wednesday’s matinee here, the conclusion afterwards might be that Atlanta, which also went with a shortened roster due to injury, defied the trends to beat the Mystics.
In a game that had 17 ties and 16 lead trends Atlanta seized the final two minutes of the fourth quarter to pull out a gritty 86-79 victory for the third straight win by the fifth-place Dream (6-9).
Atlanta moved within 1.5 games of the idle fourth-place Chicago Sky (8-8) and 3.5 of first place where the Connecticut Sun (9-5) and Indiana Fever (10-6) are percentage points apart.
Connecticut advanced in the standings to first in the East later Tuesday night beating New York in the Mohegan Sun Arena, where the Sun at home is 7-0. The win was the second triumph over the Liberty in a five-day span.
Washington (3-11), in the bottom of the six-team East, dropped 2.5 games behind the Dream and 6 behind the frontrunners.
A few hours later Wednesday, Minnesota (10-4) avenged last week's high-scoring loss to Phoenix in Minneapolis by winning another shootout with the Mercury (10-5). This time the Lynx prevailed in the Arizona desert 106-98 to leapfrog over Phoenix into first place in the West.
Phoenix fell into a second-place tie with idle San Antonio (9-4) but statistically behind the Silver Stars who will visit the defending champion Seattle Storm (7-7) Thursday night in one of two games to wrap up the week heading into the break for the All-Star game.
Seattle (7-7) is in fourth place three games behind the leaders and 2.5 games behind the Texans and Phoenix.
Storm coach Brian Agler will head to Texas after the game to coach the West squad in Saturday's All-Star classic in San Antonio where the Silver Stars are hosting the event for the first time.
In Thursday's other game Indiana (10-6) will try to stop a three-game losing streak and move back in sole possession of first when the Fever host the fourth-place Chicago Sky (8-8). The visitors are two games behind first place in the East and 1.5 games in front of Atlanta in holding what would be the final spot at the end of the regular season for the playoffs.
Chicago on Tuesday recovered from Saturday's loss at Atlanta by beating Seattle 78-69 at home as former LSU star Sylvia Fowles scored 24 points and former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince scored 23 to hand the Storm their third straight loss and most overall in two seasons.
Fowles and Prince were named Eastern All-Star reserves Tuesday by the conference's six coaches.
Former UConn star Sue Bird, who was named a starter for the West in the fans' vote, scored 26 points for Seattle against the Sky, while Ashley Robinson scored 14 points and former UConn star Swin Cash, a past All-Star, had 10 points.
In the Lynx's win Wednesday over Phoenix, former LSU star Seimone Augustus tied a season-high with 25 points to help snap the Mercury's six-game win streak.
Minnesota, which won its third straight and fifth in six games, also got 16 points from Lindsay Whalen, while rookie Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin each scored 14 points.
The Mercury's Diana Taurasi scored 24 points, while Aussie Penny Taylor scored 23 and former Temple star Candice Dupree had 16 points in Phoenix's first home loss in six games.
The game featured a bunch of players who are All-Star selectees.
UConn alums Taurasi and Moore, the number one overall pick of the draft in April, were tabbed as starters in the Western Conference group by the fans while on Tuesday the six conference coaches' reserve choices of Taylor, Whalen, Augustus and former Georgetown star Brunson were announced.
McWilliams-Franklin and Dupree have been a past All-Star honorees.
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve lauded the play of Augustus against the Mercury: "It's just so much fun to watch. Seimone is such a great player, an All-Star, an Olympian. It's just nice to see her get back after coming off a tough year where she had san injury. Physically, it's just scary how good she is."
August said revenge for last week's loss in which each team finished in triple digits with the Mercury pulling ahead in the closing minutes was a good reason to be motivated.
"We just locked in and focused," she said. "We felt like the last game we played we let one slip away, so we wanted to come out in the third quarter and put the pressure on them. Get out in transition, rebound and keep them off the glass."
Moore noted the play of her team's defense and the importance of going into the break with momentum.
"We just tried to outmatch their offense with their defense," Moore said. "It was important for us to end this segment of the season and start off the next part with a lot of good momentum."
Phoenix, which lost its first three games at the start of the season, is entering the break with its second best record trailing the 12-5 won-loss mark in 2009 when the Mercury won their second WNBA title. The loss snapped a four-game win streak to Minnesota and also it was the second home loss in two seasons to Lynx.
"Once we got our focus and realized how well we could play, ands how much effort it took to play that well, we have been rolling," Taylor said of the Mercury's overall performance to date. "Even though what happened today, I think we can still take some positives away from it, but we definitely have to have that same focus coming off the break."
On Wednesday, the league announced that new president Laurel Richie had selected Tulsa's rookie center Elizabeth Cambage, the number two overall pick of the draft out of Australia, will be a replacement on the West roster for Los Angeles center Candice Parker.
The former Tennessee sensation was picked by the fans but is currently on a six-week recovery from a knee injury suffered in last month's loss to New York in Newark, N.J. That's where the Liberty are using the Prudential Center the next three summers during the renovation of Madison Square Garden.
Aussie center Lauren Jackson, a three-time WNBA MVP with defending champion Seattle, would have been a likely addition by the coaches but she, too, is injured and is on a recovery of eight to 12 weeks for hip surgery.
Meanwhile, back here Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors spoke of her team's perseverance in overcoming the problems caused by the schedule and injuries.
“Both teams fought hard trying to get that next win,” said Meadors, who will coach the Eastern All-Stars.
On Tuesday afternoon, Atlanta at home knocked Indiana 84-74 out of the top spot in the East placing them percentage points behind Connecticut as former Duke star Lindsey Harding scored 19 points and Angel McCoughtry, the 2009 overall top draft pick out of Lousville, scored 15 points in limited action because of early foul trouble.
"Lindsey played really awesome," Meadors said of her play against the Fever. "She controlled the pace of the game, We had a lot of fast breaks, and she was leading a lot of those situations. And she distributed the ball really well to her teammates.
Erika de Souza added 15 points and 11 rebounds to the Atlanta attack while Iziane Castro Marques scored 10 points off the bench.
Tamika Catchings, who will start for the East All-Stars, scored 22 points for Indiana, while Erin Phillips scored 21 points. Katie Douglas, who will also start for the East, was held to four points, shooting 1-for-8 from the field.
"Once they separated by eight to 10 points, it was really tough to overcome it with their athleticism," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said of the Dream. "Overall, their quickness, their athleticism really bothered us.
"The thing about us, we win when we have balanced scoring," Dunn explained. "We want five to six players in double figures.
"You cannot judge where (Atlanta) is right now becxause they are not at full strength. But at the end of the season, if they are healthy, Atlanta could be a very dangerous team again. They are big and they have speed," Dunn added.
The Dream continued their thrust against Washington here Wednesday.
“We were playing two games in less than 24 hours and that was very tough on us,” Meadors said at the Verizon Center. “The biggest thing we had to fight against was our fatigue. We didn’t get into 10 o’clock last night.
“It seemed we finally got rolling there in the fourth quarter. I thought we had some good stops and offensively I felt we did a really good job of getting open looks.
“Lindsey did a good driving inside and Sandora (Irvin) really played well coming off the bench. When you only have eight players everybody has to make contributions. We’ve gotten better the last three or four games but we still have to get some injured folks back into the lineup and if we can do that maybe we can get deeper into our bench.”
Irvin’s putback brought Atlanta to a 71-71 tie with 1 minute 59 seconds left in the game and then Armintie Price drove inside for the lead almost 30 seconds later.
Then a Duke alumni combo dealt more damage when Alison Bales stole as ball off the Mystics' Nicky Anosike and fed former Washington star Harding, who hit a six-foot turnaround jump shot.
Washington’s Marissa Coleman, a former Maryland star, then made a bad pass allowing McCoughtry to make a pair of foul shots, which were followed by another pair from Irvin.
Former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon finally stopped the Washington scoring drought, though it was the proverbial too little, too late, when she hit one of two free throw attempts for the game’s final points.
McCoughtry, who will join her coach in San Antonio and be one of the Eastern starters, scored a game-high 33 points, while Harding had 14 points, Price scored 12, Erika DeSouza had 10 and Bales grabbed 10 rebounds.
Irvin, the former TCU star, played significant minutes as a substitute scoring eight points and grabbing 11 rebounds as Atlanta evened the five-game series between the two teams at 1-1.
Sancho Lyttle, who initially missed six games early in the season to play in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Spain, continued to be sidelined with a sore back while Coco Miller, the twin sister of Washington’s Kelly Miller, is out with a sprained right ankle.
Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne, a native of Willingboro, N.J., in suburban Philadelphia, scored 24 points along with grabbing 10 rebounds for Washington. On Tuesday she was also named an All-Star reserve and she'll be making her second straight All-Star appearance.
Coleman had 21 points, Ajavon scored 12, and rookie Jasmine Thomas out of Duke scored 10 off the bench while Anosike grabbed 14 rebounds.
Former Duke star Alana Beard has yet to play this season after suffering a left foot sprain prior to the opener last month. She missed all of last season after surgery on the same foot.
Monique Currie, another former Duke sensation, is out for the entire season with a knee injury suffered overseas.
“I actually liked this back-to-back better because you get to sleep a whole night,” said Harding, who made her first appearance in Washington as an opponent since the draft day deal sent her to Atlanta. “But screaming kids in both arenas are still in my head.
“A lot of our losses were very close – four, five, or six points and you have to foul at the end. We’re starting to learn to play better together and get over that hump and learn every game is going to be a grind in this league because you’re not going to blow anybody out.
“We wanted to have some momentum going into the All-Star break.”
Though only the fourth seed in last year’s playoffs, Atlanta, in its third season as a franchise, wiped out Washington 2-0 in the East opening round, then did likewise to New York to advance to the WNBA finals losing all three games by narrow margins to Seattle.
Washington, decimated by injuries and coping with a slew of roster changes – Langhorne is the only returning starter – has reverted to its mediocre ways after a franchise-best tie 22 wins, a first-place tie in the East, and gaining the number one East seed in 2010.
“I think we played a great game,” Langhorne said of the Atlanta loss. “But the fourth quarter we missed blockouts, just kind of didn’t get things going, we were going back and forth, they made plays and we didn’t and they ended up winning.
“This game hurts really bad. We’re just going to refocus. We’re still going to play hard. We have to start finishing games off because we’re playing with (teams) at the end but we’re just making little mistakes that aren’t working.”
Connecticut Surges To The Break
Things are working for the Sun (9-5), who head to the break with a three-game win streak and for the moment a percentage lead in first over Indiana, though the Fever could regain first with a Thursday win over Chicago.
Connecticut built large double digit leads Tuesday night but had to fend off a late rally by New York (9-7) before emerging with an 85-79 victory and dropping the Liberty into third place a game behind the leaders.
Former UConn star Tina Charles, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, had 24 points for Connecticut, while Renee Montgomery, another former UConn star, scored 13 points, Danielle McCray, a rookie out of Kansas who missed last year with a knee injury, scored 11 points, and second-year pro Kalana Greene, who also played at UConn, scored 10 points against her former team.
The Liberty’s Plenette Pierson scored 18 points, while the trio of former Rutgers stars scored in double digits: Cappie Pondexter had 16 points, Essence Carson scored 11 off the bench, and Kia Vaughn had 10 points. Former Stanford star Nicole Powell scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
“We aren’t setting any artistic things for finishing games but we’ll take it,” Sun coach Mike Thibault said of the way the game played out. “The one thing I told our players is you harp as a coach all the time that throwing away possessions in the first half count just as much in the second half so all the good stuff that we did for the first three quarters paid off and got us through some of the last part. But it’s a win so we’ll take it.”
New York is 5-2 in its last seven games and both losses have been to Connecticut.
Charles and Pondexter will start for the East Saturday and Montgomery and Carson were picked by the East coaches as reserves.
Thibault talked about Montgomery’s development in her third year as a pro.
“It shows the respect the coaches have in our league for how much she has improved,” he said of her selection. Montgomery came from Minnesota prior to last season in the deal that included the rights to select Charles in exchange for all-star and Minnesota native Whalen.
“As I’ve said I still think she is a work in progress but she’s light-years ahead of where she was a year ago in knowing how to run a team. I’ve told her I think if she really wants to at some point she can lead the league in assists. She knows that the defensive part is something I’ve harped about with her but she is better now than she was two weeks ago and she’s better than she was in training camp.”
Montgomery feels good about being on the upside of momentum going into the break.
“This is the situation that you always want to be in going into the All-Star break,” she said. “We have three wins in a row and you’re feeling good going into the break.
“You never want to have a horrible game with five days of rest to stew over it. You just sit around and think about it and wish you could get right back on the court to get the bad taste out of your mouth.
“For us to have three consecutive wins allows us to go home, clear our minds, and come back fresh and ready for the second half.”
An X-factor in the series between New York and the Liberty could be Greene, who made the WNBA All-Rookie team in 2010 when playing with New York, which won the series with the Sun last season. She was dealt to Connecticut on a draft day deal with New York, who got Sun pick Sydney Colson of the NCAA champion Texas A&M Aggies.
"I'm pretty sure I have little to do with it," Greene laughed. "But I'm happy though and it feels good. It just shows how hard we play as a team. Everyone gives the most every night. And when we have that it is going to be hard beating a team that leaves everything on the floor."
Thibault spoke of what Greene has brought to the Sun table.
"I think she's been an X-factor defensively," Thibault said. "A - she has a knowledge of playing with those guys every day but I think her quickness and size on Cappie and on Carson, is something we didn't have consistently last year. We got caught playing small a lot and she and Danielle have given us more physical and bigger wings to play against them."
New York coach John Whisenant commented on having now suffered two losses to Connecticut.
“They are good,” he said. “I didn’t think we played particularly well in our last outing, but they were good tonight and maybe they were the other night too. They are on a roll, they are playing good and they just beat us. We have to do our stuff better or they will beat us again and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Tulsa Names An Assistant
In other news Wednesday, Tulsa coach Teresa Edwards named former Virginia star Kathy McConnell-Miller as an assistant coach. A spot has been vacant on the Shock staff since Edwards was promoted earlier this month after Nolan Richardson resigned.
McConnell-Miller previously coached at the collegiate level at Tulsa, giving her local identity. She then moved to Colorado.
She is a sister of Duquesne coach Susie McConnell-Serio, the former Penn State All-American who played with Edwards in the Olympics and later coaxed her to Minnesota in the WNBA as a player and then assistant with the Lynx when McConnell-Serio coached there.
Heat or no heat the Guru will be at the Philly summer league Thursday night and will be back here before the next sunrise with a roundup of that action and also the two-game card on Thursday's WNBA schedule. He'll also offer his choices for the top 15 all-time WNBA players off the ballot he was asked to submit.