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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: New York Part of Five-Team Heat Wave

(Guru’s note: Source and quotes from beyond Newark where the Guru was Wednesday are drawn from team reports and those of the Associated Press. The Guru will be back at the Philly summer league Thursday night.)

By Mel Greenberg

NEWARK, N.J. –
Home teams in the WNBA Wednesday afternoon here and at three other sites on the four-game card created their own heat wave though in the case of Minnesota the visiting Phoenix Mercury were even hotter in gaining the only road victory and a bolt to sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.

The New York Liberty (8-5) here treated an announced school-age promotion crowd of 14,3124 to a lop-sided 91-69 victory over the defending Eastern Conference playoff champion Atlanta Dream (3-9) to even the season series at 2-2 and take sole possession of second place two games behind the Indiana Fever (10-3).

The crowd was a season high in the Prudential Center, which is in the first of a three-year role as a temporary home for the Liberty while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations back in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Indiana continued to thrive despite the recent season-ending injury (knee) to starting point guard Briann January, taking its seventh straight with a 90-78 win over the Connecticut Sun (6-5) that dropped the visitors to three back and one behind New York whom they will visit here Friday night.

The Chicago Sky (7-7), holding what would be the fourth and final playoff spot in the East when the regular season ends in early September, kept Tulsa (1-12) in dire straits with a 72-54 win to gain a three-game lead over fifth-place Atlanta.

And in the high-powered two-team tussle of the day that featured two individual all-time University of Connecticut superstars on opposing sides for the first time Phoenix (9-4) pulled ahead and into first place in the final minute for a 112-105 victory over Minnesota (7-4).

The loss dropped the Lynx a game behind and into a three-way tie for second with identical records with idle San Antonio (7-4) and idle Seattle (7-4) who meet each other in Texas in the only WNBA game scheduled for Thursday.

Diana Taurasi, a 2004 graduate of UConn who repeated her 2010 ESPN ESPY award Wednesday night as best WNBA player, scored 27 points, including five three-pointers as the Mercury rallied from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

Penny Taylor, who finished with 19 points, fueled the rally with 14 of them in the final period.

Maya Moore, the overall No. 1 draft pick taken by Minnesota out of Connecticut, had 15 points on 6-for-18 shooting from the field.

Moore and Tarausi were teammates in September for USA Basketball when their UConn coach Geno Auriemma guided the Americans to the FIBA gold medal in Czechoslovakia in September.

This was the first Moore-Tarausi matchup but there have been other womano-womano UConn alumnae duels in the WNBA.

Moore and Taurasi are likely to be reunited with other ex-Huskies in the WNBA next summer under Auriemma on the Olympic squad competing at the 2012 London Games in England.

Back here in Newark familiarity is breeding victories for New York, which has won four straight and six of seven on a tear that began after a four-game losing streak that had dropped the Liberty to 1-4.

Nicole Powell, a seven-year pro out of Stanford who played for first year Liberty general manager-coach John Whisenant with the former Sacramento Monarchs, had a season-high 20 points and was 5-for-5 on three-point attempts while also grabbing seven rebounds.

Powell was acquired last season in the dispersal draft of the Monarchs’ roster after its NBA parent Sacramento Kings jettisoned the team in the winter of 2009.

Though New York made it to the playoffs last season as the No. 2 seed after tying the Washington Mystics for first in the East, Powell was not as much a force as she had been playing in Sacramento when she was a key factor in the Monarchs’ run to the 2005 WNBA title over the Connecticut Sun.

Atlanta swept New York 2-0 last year in the best-of-three Eastern finals.

“Nicole, the last three games has been exceptional,” said former Rutgers all-American Cappie Pondexter, who had 10 points on a day she didn’t have to do most of the work for the Liberty. “I think her energy on both ends of the court has made us a better team without question. She’s bringing it now … she’s playing out of her mind like the Nicole we’ve seen in the past.”

Whisenant cited Powell’s play in his postgame remarks.

“I thought Nicole Powell played very well although I must say Nicole has been playing well. Fans and media have a tendency to not recognize (effort) unless (players) are scoring a lot of points. But she’s been playing really well and just not shooting as well as she did for me in playing in Sacramento. But she shot it again tonight.”

New York built a 12-point lead at 25-13 at the end of the first quarter and went on to lead at the half 54-37 in scoring the most points ever in the first 20 minutes of a home game in the team’s 15-year history.

The Liberty’s only problem was over a stretch that began late in the third quarter when Whisenant tried to give the younger substitute players some experience and Atlanta sliced a 24-point lead to 12 with 4 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the game.

“That was a satisfying win over a team we’ve been up on double digits a couple of other times and lost to,” Whisenant said. “I was trying to let our younger players get some experience – our new players -- but they couldn’t quite finish it off without the vets.

“We held this team to 40 percent shooting – which is good. We got them to make 18 turnovers to our 10 – which is good. As we’ve stated from the beginning, rebounding is a constant battle for our team. We lost last year’s two top rebounders (Taj McWilliams-Franklin to free agency; Janelle McCarville suspended) and that team had rebounding problems.

“We’re trying to progress – (Quanitra) Hollingsworth is improving every game. We’re trying to get our new player from DePaul (Felicia) Chester some more minutes, hopefully, and see if she can get in the mix and Plenette (Pierson) and Kia (Vaughn) continuing to improve.”

All five starters scored in double figures for New York with Pondexter and Powell joined by former Rutgers center Kia Vaughn, who scored 14 points, Leilani Mitchell, who scored 12, and Pierson, who scored 11 before leaving the game with what is believed to be a bruised knee.

Hollingsworth scored 10 points off the bench and former Rutgers star Essence Carson scored 9 points.

It’s the second straight game six Liberty players have scored in double figures which is pleasing Whisenant, who emphasizes a complex and intense defensive scheme but said that Liberty players are getting more scoring opportunities than his teams in Sacramento.

“They’re coming together as a team but defensively, we’re making corrections that we were breaking down with in the past,” Whisenant said. “My players believe that our defensive philosophy, although a little odd, is good and has results.

“We’re scoring at a high pace which is the intent of our defense. Our team has some offensive gifts, we can depend on different people to score and we’re getting 80 possessions so we’re running better on offense.”

The Dream, who advanced to the WNBA finals before losing to Seattle in three straight close games in their third season of existence, have been running nowhere in falling 6.5 games behind first and holding fifth place at 3-9 just one win and a half-game ahead of the struggling Washington Mystics (2-9).

Two of the three wins are over New York.

Angel McCoughtry, the No. 1 overall pick out of Louisville in 2009, had 17 points, former Georgia star Coco Miller scored 15, and Armintie Price scored 12.

“We need to play hard all 40 minutes,” said Miller, whose twin sister Kelly plays for Washington after being traded by the Dream on draft day. “I think the main thing, we have a couple of spurts of playing good and then we take a little break and that’s when teams come out on runs so we just need to play hard for 40 minutes.

“We came back in the second half and played hard but it was just a little too late.”

Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors talked about New York’s early salvo of shots.

“I thought the Liberty came out and shot the ball extremely well and I think tht kind of put us back on our heels a little bit,” Meadors said. “At one point I think they shot like 58 percent and through the third quarter they were pretty much close to that.

“I just felt if they had an open look, they knocked it down. They missed several in the fourth quarter but by then it was a double digit lead for them.”

Atlanta next hosts Chicago Saturday in what must be considered a must win game for the Dream to prevent the Sky from gaining more distance in the standings.

In some ways Wednesday’s game was a must-win for New York to prevent Atlanta from winning the season series though one game remains in August between the two.

“You’re aware but you try not to think too much about what’s down the road,” Powell said about what was necessary to hold for tiebreakers should New York and Atlanta be later fighting for either a playoff berth overall or a specific place in the final standings.

“I mean when I play I concentrate on the play that is happening right now not what is going to happen two or three moves ahead.”

Phoenix Rallies Over Minnesota

It’s been steady as things go over the West for Phoenix, which shook off that 0-3 start, and Minnesota, which has had several years of collecting a talented roster but has missed playoffs because of injuries and narrow losses.
“After an 0-3 start, we didn’t panic,” Taurasi said of the current 9-of-10 run. “We didn’t get too low. We know we had to fix some things to get on a roll. You can’t get too low. You can’t get too high.

“Today we showed we’re a team that’s banded together.”

Besides Taurasi and Taylor, former Auburn star DeWanne Bonner had a huge effort for the Mercury, scoring 24 points while former Temple star Candice Dupree scored 19 points.

Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle star in Philadelphia from South Jersey, sensed Taurasi might go off while watching her during the warm-ups.

“You can tell when Taurasi is going to be on her game,” Reeve said. “It was something I knew. I was just hopeful Taylor wasn’t going to have a big game. When you play those guys, you can’t have them both on. If you have them both on, you have a problem. What we did let happen was let Bonner get off.”

Phoenix hit 14 three-point shots in the game.

Former LSU star Seimone Augustus had 22 points for the Lynx, who next head to Indiana Friday night in another East-West high-powered matchup.

Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen scored 19 points and Rebekkah Brunson, the former Georgetown star, had another big double double production with 16 points and 16 rebounds.

“You’re at home,” Whalen said. “You’re up with five minutes to go. You have to try and extend it and we gave up probably three or four 3’s in a row. When you’re up like that, you have to be able to close teams out. We have to be able to do that.”

Phoenix, which next hosts Washington Friday night, has had other high-scoring affairs with Minnesota, most notably last summer when the Mercury prevailed 127-124 in double overtime for the highest-scoring game in WNBA history.

Former Sun Stars Lead Indiana Over Connecticut

Katie Douglas and Erin Phillips helped extend the Indiana Fever to a seven-game win streak, second longest in franchise history, as Douglas, a former Purdue star, scored 20 points while Phillips, a native of Australia, had 13 against the Sun, which they played for several years ago.

The run is the second longest in franchise history.

Phillips has started all three games since January was lost with the knee injury and Indiana has won all three.

“I think Erin’s doing a great job reading the game and passing it ahead of and being that floor general,” Douglas said.

Former Ohio State star had 14 points for Indiana while Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee All-American sensation, had 13 points, seven assists, and five rebounds.

Indiana, which hosts Minnesota Friday, had all five starters and six players overall score in double figures for just the third time in Fever history.

Former Tennessee star Shyra Ely scored 10 for the Fever.

Both teams shot 11 three pointers but the Sun, which continues to struggle on the road, had seven more attempts from beyond the arc.

“We played bad defense and they shot the ball great,” Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said.

Tan White, a former Indiana player, had 17 points shooting a perfect 5-of-5 three-point attempts, while Tina Charles, the former UConn star and 2010 overall No. 1 pick, had 15 points and 11 rebounds. However, Sun point guard Renee Montgomery, the third year pro out of UConn, was held to six points and shot 2-for-12 from the field.

Indiana blitzed to a 53-30 halftime lead causing Fever coach Lin Dunn to remark, “It was as good a first half as I’ve ever seen us play.

“I was a little concerned with the big lead and that we might relax a little bit and it looked like we started the third quarter assuming the game was over. (The Sun) is not going to lay down and die. They’re going to fight with everything they have and we expected them to make a run.”

Cartchings said the team is showing signs of being as good as two seasons ago when the Fever won the East in 2009 but fell in the finals in two close games where Phoenix rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win at Conesco Fieldhouse and then prevail in the closing minutes in the Arizona desert.

“You’ve seen glimpses of how good the team can be, and if we can put it together for 40 minutes, we can be an extraordinary team and a championship team,” Catchings note. “We’re not to that point yet.”

Record Crowd For Chicago As Sky Top Shock

These home games for campers and school-age children in the summer can be a shot in the arm to attendance and maybe even create a few new followers to track the WNBA.

The franchise-record 13, 838 announced at Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont, Ill., were given reason to follow Chicago as the Sky topped Tulsa to make Teresa Edwards 0-2 since being promoted last Friday night to interim head coach after Nolan Richardson resigned.

Former LSU all-American Sylvia Fowles, playing for her former college coach Pokey Chatman, who became the Sky’s coach and general manager for this season, had 21 points as the Sky evened its record at 7-7 heading into a showdown Saturday at Atlanta.

Former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince scored 11 points for the Sky and substitute Tamera Young, a former James Madison star, scored 10 points.

Tulsa Friday night will be hosting Los Angeles, which broke a five-game losing streak Tuesday night under new and former Sparks coach Joe Bryant.

Fowles, who grabbed 13 rebounds, is averaging 20.4 points a game as the WNBA and Sky’s leading scorer.

Tulsa’s Jennifer Lacy scored 13 points off the bench while Andrea Riley scored 12. The Shock’s lone win to date was over Washington at home on June 18th.

-- Mel

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