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, July 18, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: New York And Connecticut Tighten East

(Guru’s note: Information for this post beyond being live with New York is based on quotes and source material elsewhere from team reports and wire service coverage.)

By Mel Greenberg

NEWARK, N.J. –
The New York Liberty here at the Prudential Center and Connecticut Sun up North at the Mohegan Sun Arena drew closer to first place in the Eastern Conference while the Washington Mystics’ dismal road trip came to an uplifting finish Sunday by rallying from a 24-point deficit that existed early in the third quarter to win 89-85 over the Los Angeles Sparks in the biggest second-half comeback in WNBA history.

Earlier on the weekend, the Minnesota Lynx finished a key back-to-back Saturday by handing Seattle in Minneapolis its sixth loss equaling the total the Storm suffered all of last season by the WNBA champions while the Atlanta Dream moved a little closer to the Eastern leaders by gaining a home win over the Chicago Sky (7-8).

On a day in which former Liberty great Teresa Weatherspoon, currently coaching her alma mater at Louisiana Tech, joined San Antonio assistant coach Vicky Johnson as the second inductee into New York’s Ring of Honor, the home team ran rings around the forlorn Tulsa Shock with an easy 88-57 victory to move within a game of first-place Indiana.

The Connecticut Sun helped the Liberty out by ending a small three-game losing string against the Fever 76-71 on a career day by rookie Danielle McCray as coach Mike Thibault broke a deadlock with former Liberty coach Anne Donovan and former Los Angeles coach Michael Cooper to become the second coach in WNBA career wins at 168.

The day’s activity finished on the West Coast where Washington (3-10), mired in last place in the East, stunned Los Angeles (6-7) and handed Sparks new coach Joe Jellybean Bryant his first loss after two wins at the outset of his second tour of duty.

He was promoted from assistant coach last Sunday after Los Angeles general manager Penny Toler fired Jennifer Gillom.

Back here Teresa Edwards, the Olympic great and former Georgia star who is headed for induction to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame next month in Springfield, Mass., is still looking for her first win after four outings since replacing the resigned Nolan Richardson a week ago Friday with Tulsa.

New York (9-6) thrived off the Rutgers alumnae association as All-Star Cappie Pondexter scored 18 points, Kia Vaughn scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Essence Carson came off the bench to score 17 points.

Additionally, Plenette Pierson celebrated her return after a one game absence because of a strained tendon in her left knee by adding 12 points as the Liberty bounced back from Friday night’s loss to Connecticut here to win for the seventh time in their last nine games.

Connecticut and New York meet again Tuesday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena and the winner will be either tied for first or alone in second pending the outcome earlier in the day of Indiana’s visit to Atlanta (4-9).

"We played with more energy, our feet were alive and we didn't have our mud boots on," New York first year coach/general manager John Whisenant said. "I told the team I don't have a secret to unlock your energy box but when you play with energy and determination we're a sound, pretty good team and when we play the way we did the last time we're not."

Pondexter, usually the first stop by the media in the Liberty dressing room after games, told reporters that it took a little grandmotherly advice to motivate her to have a good game after just scoring 11 in Friday night’s loss to Connecticut.

"When my grandmother speaks I have to listen and do what she says," Pondexter said. "It was kind of funny hearing her say that. ... I was heading out the door to go to the game, and she was just like 'Make sure you take over.'"

Of course Tuesday’s game may tell more about New York considering that on Sunday the Liberty were playing a Tulsa team (1-14) whose only win this season was at home against Washington.

The last game at home Tulsa squandered an 18-point lead in the third quarter in a loss to Los Angeles. On Sunday, New York enjoyed its largest lead of the season at 34 points and largest outcome at the finish by 31 points.

New York had already beaten the Shock last month in Tulsa when Richardson was still coaching after a debut season that produced a 6-28 record following the franchise move under new ownership from Detroit, where three WNBA titles were won.

"I'm sure any team going against them, a team that's won one game, it's easy to step into a game and feel like you automatically won," Pondexter said about cautioning her teammates not to assume an automatic win. "But I continued to remind us from the beginning of the game when we're warming up ... that it's not over with. Their team is searching for a win, they have a new coach, they have new energy, so anything could happen."

Tulsa’s Tiffany Jackson had 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Doneeka Lewis and rookie Liz Cambage, the second overall pick of the April draft out of Australia, scored 11 each.

The Shock have lost nine straight since the win over Washington.

“I can take some positives,” said Edwards, who may use the week’s break to do some roster revisions and add to her coaching staff. She had been hired prior to the season as director of player personnel and then coaxed by Richardson to become an assistant.

“I think Tiffany is really coming out and establishing herself as a premiere professional player and I really like that,” Edwards said. “She’s just been a leader on and off the court, verbal as well as what she shows up and down the court.

“That was a big positive for me to have a consistent player. I need players who can be consistent.”

Sun Melts Fever

Connecticut (8-5), off two straight defensive performances following a pair of blowout losses, including one at Indiana (10-5), helped bring the frontrunners back to the pack by handing the Fever their second straight loss, including Friday’s home loss to Minneapolis.

Danielle McCray, who was drafted in the first round a year ago out of Kansas but didn’t play because of a knee injury her senior season, scored a career high 22 points fueled by six of eight three-pointers, one less than the team record seven once achieved by former Sun and UConn star Nykesha Sales on July 27, 2000, at the former Sacramento Monarchs.

Former UConn great Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury has the WNBA record for treys made in a game – eight, which she has completed twice.

''When we drafted her we felt she had a chance to be a really good player but when you come in as a rookie I think it's important to give them as much as they can take and let them find their way and then when you know matured, then you kind of let them have more," Thibault said also explaining why McCray was inserted into the starting lineup.

“I felt number one, our team needed a different look size-wise. Starting two small guards put us at a size disadvantage,” he continued. “And then also Kara (Lawson) could help jump start us coming off the bench and be an energy person both offensively and defensively.

“Other than that one stretch in the third quarter, I would say overall I’m
pretty happy with everything that happened. The good part of that is they
made their run, we stopped it, and then we got ourselves going again right
away and got defensive stops down the stretch.”

Former UConn All-American Tina Charles, the number one overall draft pick for last season, had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help keep the Sun the only remaining WNBA unbeaten at home at 6-0. Renee Montgomery, another ex-Huskies All-American, had six of her 10 points in the fourth quarter when Indiana rallied in the closing minutes.

McCray said of her performance: "My teammates found me on the weak side and when I had the ball, I knocked it down.

“They were cheating inside because when we have a good post player like Tina Charles, the other team is going to double-team her," McCray said. "So when they were doubling on Tina, Coach Thibault put me on the back side and I knocked the shots down."

Indiana’s Tamika Catchings scored 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while Jessica Davenport had 10 points and former Sun star Katie Douglas scored 12.

Fever coach Lin Dunn bemoaned her team’s foul shooting: “When you go on the road you have to hit your free throws, that’s just all there is to it,” she said of the 8-for-14 effort from the charity stripe as opposed to 15-for-22 by the Sun.

“They are too good, miss six free throws on the road just can’t happen and I thought down the stretch we missed a couple of layups that could have won the ball game. I thought we did a really good job getting back to a one possession game and then we make an unnecessary foul.

“We didn’t play smart at the end and I’m disappointed that we didn’t find a way to
win. I feel like we helped them with some of the things we did.

“We were down ten at half and we came back, had a really good third quarter
closed it up and had a chance to win and that is what you want to do on the
road, but its hard to win on the road when you don’t make your free throws.”

Catchings, Charles and Douglas will be Eastern starters in Saturday’s All-Star game in San Antonio along with New York’s Cappie Pondexter and Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry.

The reserves, selected by each of the West and East six coaches, will be named Tuesday.

Washington Comeback Adds To WNBA History

While Matee Ajavon’s former Rutgers teammates were having a field day against Tulsa back in East, the former Scarlet Knights all-American and former first round draft pick had one of her biggest days as a pro scoring 27 points to lead Washington over Los Angeles in overtime and help snap a five-game losing streak.

The 24-point comeback in the second half topped a 21-point rally that was twice achieved by the Tulsa franchise when it was in Detroit as the Shock beat Indiana on June 9, 2004, and Chicago on Dec. 12, 2009.

The Shock still owns the overall rally record a point ahead of Washington and ironically Los Angeles squandered a 35-10 lead of 25 points that existed in that one in the first half on June 26, 2005.

“The whole time, we were confident we could come back,” Ajavon said. “And our coach is confident in us, we have faith as well. We just fought the whole way through.”

Crystal Langhorne’s back problems seemed to have gone away in that the former Maryland star from Willingboro, N.J., added 24 points and 14 rebounds to the Mystics’ cause, while another ex-Terrapins star Marissa Coleman had 10 points and nine rebounds for Washington.

“With this team, I’m not surprised by anything,” Langhorne said. “It just shows how much heart we have as a team. We’re always gonna fight back.”

Washington forced the extra period scoring 29 points in the final quarter and Coleman’s trey actually gave the Mystics a 73-70 lead with 1 minute, 40 seconds left in regulation.

Los Angeles’ Kristi Toliver scored 21 points and her two foul shots with 8:45 left in the third quarter gave the Sparks a 51-27 lead. She was a teammate of Washington’s Langhorne and Coleman on the 2006 Maryland team that beat Atlantic Coast Conference-rival Duke in overtime for the NCAA title in Boston after Toliver’s trey at the end of regulation extended the game and helped complete a double-digit comeback that existed at the half.

Washington scored 64 points and shot 58 percent in the second half.

“The second half, we started playing slower and they were really aggressive,” Toliver said. “It’s extremely disappointing for us to just give the game away like this.”

Ajavon’s two foul shots with 3.4 seconds left in regulation tied the game and then Los Angeles missed a chance to escape when veteran guard Ticha Penicheiro, a former Old Dominion star, missed a driving layup before time expired.

The win made Washington three game behind fourth-place Chicago (7-8) and only a game behind fifth-place Atlanta (4-9), whom the Mystics next host Wednesday morning at 11:30 a.m.

Los Angeles must turn right around and host third-place San Antonio (8-4) Monday night in the only game on the WNBA schedule.

The Silver Stars are in third place a game behind first-place Phoenix (10-4) and a half-game behind Minnesota (9-4).

Lynx Quiet Storm

On Saturday, the Lynx completed a back-to-back with a sweep following the Friday win at Indiana and then the 69-62 win at home over fourth-place Seattle (7-6), which is 2.5 games out of first and 1.5 games behind San Antonio.

Minnesota’s 2-0 run followed a tough Wednesday 112-105 home loss to Phoenix, whom the Lynx will travel to Wednesday afternoon.

The Saturday game was the first in Minneapolis with the Storm after the Lynx had split a pair in the Northwest.

Seimone Augustus, the former LSU star who is a past No. 1 overall draft pick, scored 19 for the Lynx who used a 22-2 run to subdue Seattle.

Besides missing three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson, who is sidelined eight to 12 weeks recovering from hip surgery, the Storm were without another post presence in former North Carolina star Camile Little, who missed the game for personal reasons, according to the Associated Press report.

“I think we just started to run our offense, be more efficient and get the ball in places that made it tough for Seattle,” Augustus said.

Rebekkah Brunson scored 16 for the Lynx, Lindsay Whalen scored 13, and though rookie Maya Moore, the number one overall draft pick out of UConn in April, scored just seven points on 3-for-7 shooting, she grabbed a career high nine rebounds.

Former Penn State stsr Tanisha Wright scored 18 for the Storm, while two former UConn greats, Swin Cash and Sue Bird, scored 16 points and 15, respectively.

“They did a nice job of limiting our possessions and we really had to grind things out,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Doing it back-to-back, it was just one of those things – by one or 21 just win the game.”

As has been the case in many games this season with or without Jackson, Seattle fell in a deep deficit, this time by 21 points, before rallying to a competitive finish.

“We can’t go into those lulls because it gives teams opportunities to get big leads on us,” Bird said. “Even though we do come back, it’s a lot of energy to do that and then sometimes it’s difficult to get over the hump, tying it or taking the lead. We’re definitely aware of that. We’ve just got to have a little more focus.”

Bird, Cash, Taurasi, and Moore will start for the West Saturday and Seattle’s Brian Agler will coach the squad while Atlanta’s Marynell Meadors will coach the East. Los Angeles sensation Candace Parker was voted by the fans a fifth starter but she is in the middle of a six-week recovery from a knee injury suffered early on the Spark’s recent seven-game road trip when she got hurt in New York.

New WNBA president Laurel Richie will name the replacement on the West roster and Agler will later this week name the replacement starter after the rest of the squad is filled out.

Dream Close In On Sky

In Saturday’s other game Atlanta avenged last week’s loss in Chicago beating the Sky at home 76-68 in what was the Dream’s best game of the season, looking more like the form that carried them to the WNBA championship series.

Angel McCoughtry scored 24 points, former Duke star Lindsay Harding scored 14, while Armintie Price scored 13 points and had a season-high 10 assists as the Dream snapped a two-game losing streak.

“We had a valuable contribution from a lot of people since we were down to nine players,” Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said after the Dream handed the Sky their fifth straight road loss.

Chicago, which could have put further distance with Atlanta had the Sky won, got 20 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks from Sylvia Fowles, who undoubtedly will be named a reserve on the East squad.

Cathrine Kraayeveld, Sylvia Fowles and former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince each scored 11 points for Chicago and Snow also grabbed 12 rebounds.

Chicago missed 11 of its first 12 shots but rallied from a 15-point deficit to take a 42-35 lead with 7:56 left in the third quarter off a 40-17 run before the Dream regained control.

“We lacked focus, lacked concentration and gave up our opportunities,” Fowles said.

Chicago next hosts Seattle on Tuesday in a key game for both teams, as they all are this week going into the three-day break for the All-Star game.

-- Mel

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