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 11, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: New York Coach Relishes Rutgers DNA In Liberty Win

(Guru's note. There is a commentary post below this on the weekend WNBA coaching changes in Tulsa and Los Angeles. If you are in melgreenberg.com then click on the mel's blog item on the left panel to get to the full archive in blogspot.)

By Mel Greenberg

NEWARK, N.J.
– Because of the trio of Rutgers players on the New York Liberty roster in Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that former Sacramento Monarchs general-mananger/coach John Whisenant was willing to sacrifice his reputation as a West Coast guy and leave his comfortable surroundings when he pursued the New York coaching job to return to the WNBA.

Whisenant had been out of the women’s pro league following the NBA Sacramento Kings’ decision in the winter of 2009 to say adios to their WNBA sister squad.

Thus, after MSG Sports pulled a shocker in October and let go former vice president Carol Blazejowski, the Hall of Famer who had oversaw the Liberty from the WNBA’s outset in 1997, Whisenant seemed quite the bargain to do both jobs in the wake of Anne Donovan’s departure to return to college ranks and coach the Seton Hall women in the Big East.

The Whiz’ strengths, especially in guiding Sacramento to the 2005 title, is to function as Secretary of Defense with his “White Line” strategy, which is why Rutgers players schooled under the system of Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer have always seemed desirable weapons to him.

That’s why he surprised many during the 2005 WNBA draft when he picked former Scarlet Knights defensive standout Chelsea Newton in the second round as the 22nd overall pick.

Then in the winter of 2005 Whisenant was forced to let Newton go in the expansion draft to fill the Chicago Sky roster for the 2006 season but in 2007 he dealt a first round pick to get her back. She has since retired and is now an assistant to Stringer at Rutgers.

On Sunday, the three Rutgers musketeers were key factors in the Liberty’s rally from a 17-point deficit that existed early in the second quarter to an 80-73 victory over the Sky as New York (7-5) moved into a virtual second-place tie with the idle Connecticut Sun (6-4) two games behind the idle and red-hot Indiana Fever (9-3) in the Eastern Conference.

The Sky (6-7), which could have bypassed New York, stayed in fourth 3.5 games out but still ahead of the idle Atlanta Dream (3-8), the defending Eastern Conference playoff champion who visit here in a noon matinee game on Wednesday.

Chicago on Wednesday afternoon, will host the Tulsa Shock (1-11), whose new coach Teresa Edwards, named interim for the rest of the season, had a dismal debut Sunday in Phoenix where the Mercury (8-4) thumped the Shock 102-63 to move into a virtual three-way tie for first in the West with the idle San Antonio Silver Stars and Minnesota Lynx, who are both 7-3.

Those were the only two games on the Sunday schedule in the WNBA,

The Shock are mired in last place seven games behind and six behind fourth-place Seattle (6-4), which would be the last playoff spot if the postseason began today.

Less than two days after Nolan Richardson’s departure and Edwards’ promotion, Los Angeles (4-6), mired in fifth place but only two behind Seattle, made a coaching change, firing Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Jennifer Gillom and replacing her with assistant Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the father of NBA Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who also was the head coach of the Sparks from August 2005 through the 2006 season.

General manager Penny Toler said Bryant would remain in charge for the rest of the season with assistant Sandy Brondello, who was the San Antonio head coach in 2010, remaining on the staff.

Los Angeles, which is without injured superstar Candace Parker for six weeks because of a knee injury, is 0-6 on the road and has lost five straight, all away from the Staples Center, including Saturday night’s 99-80 blowout loss at Seattle.

Meanwhile, Carson, who missed the two San Antonio games a week ago Friday here and last Friday in Texas because of any eye injury, returned playing with goggles and shared Liberty scoring honors with Pondexter, each scoring 18 points.

Pondexter brought New York back to a 70-70 tie with a three-pointer with 1 minute, 15 seconds left in the game after the Liberty had brief small leads a few minutes earlier.

Nicole Powell, the former Stanford star who played for Whisenant in Sacramento, then blocked a layup attempt by All-Star Sylvia Fowles, but the Sky got a rebound, only to have second-year pro Epiphanny Prince, another former Rutgers standout, miss a layup attempt and then Pondexter found Carson open for a three-pointer and the go-ahead basket at 76-73 with 31.7 seconds remaining.

Pondexter, who had 13 points in the fourth quarter and only five at the half, then twice grabbed Sky rebounds and went to the foul line to hit four straight free throws for the game’s final points.

“I have the confidence in myself to help my team win and be successful,” Pondexter said of overcoming her earlier struggles and returning to form late in the game. “I’m just happy that we were able to win and I was happy I was able to make those key shots down the stretch and especially knock those free throws down.”

Vaughn, getting more minutes after the offseason departures of post players Taj McWilliams-Franklin (free agency to Minnesota) and Janelle McCarville (decided to take year off), had 10 points and five rebounds with a pair of steals and three blocks.

Powell had 10 points, Plenette Pierson scored 13, and former Virginia Commonwealth star Quanitra Hollingsworth, a 6-foot-5 reserve center obtained in a trade with the Minnesota Lynx just before the season opener, had a career high 11 points topping the eight she scored in the first win over San Antonio here on July 1.

Prince, who had 24, one below her career high, Saturday night in Chicago’s home win over Atlanta, was held to eight points, shooting 4-for-16 from the field.

Fowles and Courtney Vandersloot, the third overall pick in April out of Gonzaga, each scored 14 points while former Tennessee star Michelle Snow scored 11, the same total as former New York guard Erin Thorn off the bench.

Pondexter, who came to New York before last season in a three-way mega-deal involving Phoenix and Chicago, talked a bit about Vaughn’s improvement in her third year.

“You’ve seen it during the playoffs last year when (McCarville) went out and Taj had the concussion and Kia stepped up and helped us win to go to the (Eastern) finals,” Pondexter said.

“So you’re starting to see it now. Any player. Thirty-plus minutes can help them be confident. You know ‘Coach’ is behind you and you just have to perform. And I think she’s done that and she’s taking on a starting role.”

Pondexter became known as an explosive scoring All-Star once she got to the league as the overall No. 2 pick for Phoenix in 2006 playing in former Mercury coach Paul Westhead’s high-scoring system alongside the former UConn great Diana Taurasi.

However, her experience under Stringer’s schooling has made it easy to discuss Whisenant’s style of defense, which has now carried New York to three straight wins and five in the Liberty’s last six games.

“I guess it’s tough playing against three Rutgers players,” Pondexter laughed. “You have Essence on the other end, and Kia down low, and you had me coming from all different angles. I think it would be a little tough to play against us.

“`Coach has been doing a pretty good job of subbing so we won’t get tired in the fourth quarter,” she said. “He would leave the starters in for a long period of time (early in the season when New York struggled) and when it came to the fourth quarter we couldn’t close out the game.

“He’s starting to adjust and learn us and we’re just keep playing hard and stay with his system.”

Asked which coach was more loquacious explaining their systems, based on the way Stringer and Whisenant respond to media questions, Pondexter laughed and said, “You tell me.

“Actually, I think that’s just a generational thing among the two of them,” Pondexter grinned. “It’s generational.”

She described her pass to Carson for the go-ahead game-winner in the closing minute.

“A lot of times I draw a lot of defense,” Pondexter explained. “Thank God I have great vision. I saw her shifting over once everybody collapsed on me and she was wide open. I’m just glad she had the confidence in herself to take that shot. It could have gone either way because I had Nicole on the baseline and I had Essence at the top of the key.”

Pondexter assessed the overall team at this point in the season.

“What are we 12 games in or so? I think we’re starting to get our flow and understanding of each other and what each other can contribute within the system. Overall, I think our defense has been pretty damn good our last three games,” she continued.

“You’re starting to see now, it’s not about being `that person’ but being a good teammate,” Pondexter discussed the defense. “Coming in and giving solid minutes for ourselves, for Essence and Nicole. I’m talking about the rookies, in general.

“`Q’ Our big girl has done a great job just rebounding and being just big on the defensive end for us. So with her playing more and more she’s going to be better and better going down the stretch.

“She’s scary. She’s unbelievable. You talk about Sylvia Fowles and her and the things they’re able to do, especially with their size. It’s awesome at times.

“I say `God, you’re a big girl.’ She thinks she’s 6-2. I tell her she’s 6-2.

“I think this game is more of a confidence builder. We’ve always had character. To come back from down 17 it just shows we’re beginning to trust each other, especially playing in this system.

“He wants us to play his thing, which is defense, so I think we’re starting to get it.”

Whisenant believes his team has confidence, “feeling like they can win every game.

“Unfortunately, the league and the competition level has grown with every team capable of winning home or away. And so our team played with a degree of confidence, I thought. I was told that after our San Antonio win by the San Antonio media, who thought we played with confidence. That’s what we try to instill.”

Whisenant stressed that emphasis in his postgame remarks, noting that after giving up 49 points in the first half, the Liberty held the Sky down with a 42-24 advantage over the final two quarters.

Asked what changed, he responded, “We dug ourselves a hole and we came out like we had been in another one of those back-to-backs (in the schedule) and we hadn’t.

“We had a full day when we got back from San Antonio and we had a very light practice. But we were asleep, sleep walking in the first part of the game and gave up a lot of easy baskets.

“Fortunately, we turned it around. I’m proud of my team. I think they showed courage. We worked harder (in the second half), we never do anything different on defense. Our defense is always the same. We don’t change. We just play harder.

“It comes down to `Can we execute and slowing down their offense?’ We emphasized places they were hurting us. They were attacking us in the middle of the floor and we don’t like it in the middle. They were putting double high posts and coming off of it.”

He said he was concerned about Carson having had a 10-day layoff because of the injury.

“Essence came in. I was worried about Essence. I was worried about the length of minutes she could play because she missed a week of practice. When you take that long off and you’re in tiptop shape, it varies with certain people how long you’re able to come back.

“She obviously handled it pretty well. I saved her as much as I could. I kept saying to her in the second half, `I don’t want to see you running out of air. Because I want you ready for the last two minutes and she said, `I’m fine. I’m fine.’ She hit a big three there to put us up and I’m glad she’s on my side.”

Carson said she felt it was like just another game and didn’t have much difficult.

Whisenant also discussed Pondexter’s night, again showing his fondness for Rutgers DNA.

“She’s our star. She was having difficulty early, getting loose. I promised her yesterday getting off that plane if she practiced hard, we had gotten up five in the morning, and if she worked up a sweat she’d be loose and limber today.

“I’m not sure she agreed the way she started. But she got into it. She’s a great competitor. You can’t help but love Cappie. Well, all those Rutgers girls are that way. Vivian must only recruit that kind of player.”

-- Mel

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