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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Liberty Rally Fells The Sky

(Guru’s note: Material beyond game site for this post drawn from team and wire reports).

By Mel Greenberg

Outside on the walls of the Prudential Center here are affixed a pair of the Rock of Gibraltar insignias that serve as the well-known insurance company’s trademark.

For three quarters and early into the fourth Tuesday night inside those arena walls the WNBA New York Liberty, one of the building’s primary summer tenants, exhibited a performance that was exceedingly less solid than The Rock.

Then, just as occurred here in a 59-49 win earlier this month against the same Chicago Sky, coach John Whisenant’s group rallied, this time from a 14-point deficit in the final period, to emerge with a 71-67 triumph that altered both teams’ situations in the drive for the playoffs and enabled the Indiana Fever (19-10) and Connecticut Sun (18-12) to back into two of the four postseason berths available in the Eastern Conference race.

New York (17-13) is more than likely playoff bound as a result of the rally over the Sky (14-16) and so are the defending conference playoff Atlanta Dream (16-13), which took down Indiana in Georgia, 92-90, for the second win in two days over the Fever and stayed perfect in the season series at 3-0 with one game remaining between the two.

Connecticut, in second place, had a chance to move closer to Indiana heading into Friday night’s showdown at home in Uncasville but instead remained 1.5 games back after losing on the road Tuesday night to the San Antonio Silver Stars 78-66.

Chicago’s loss put both Indiana and Connecticut into the playoffs, which for the Sun will be their first postseason appearance since 2008.

“It doesn’t feel real good,” Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said of backing in after two straight losses following Friday’s home win over Phoenix. “You’d rather win to get in. I don’t like backing in. We knew we were going to get in eventually, but it’s not a fun way to have it happen.”

San Antonio’s win, highlighted by veteran All-Star Becky Hammon’s 16 points, including her 5,000th career point, stopped a six-game losing streak and kept the Texans’ hopes alive for a playoff spot in the West as they maintained a 1.5 lead over fifth-place Los Angeles (13-17).

The Sparks stayed in the hunt by avenging Sunday night’s narrow loss to the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm (17-13) on the road by winning at home in the Staples Center 68-62.

The Seattle loss stopped a chance for the moment to clinch a playoff spot and the Storm fell into third place a half-game behind the Phoenix Mercury (17-12), whose 96-74 win on the road over Tulsa (3-26) stopped the Shock’s brief two-game win streak that had come after setting a WNBA record with 20 straight losses.

Phoenix and Seattle each need a win to clinch a playoff spot in the West.

Minnesota (24-6), which has clinched its first Western title and No. 1 playoff seed in the conference, moved closer Tuesday night to wrapping up the best overall record, ensuring home-court advantage in the best-of-five WNBA finals if the Lynx are still alive.

They continued to roll Tuesday, winning at home in Minneapolis against Washington 73-56 needing just one more win or Indiana loss to gain the overall seed. The Mystics (5-24) lost their ninth straight.

Chicago, which had been in control of the outcome most of the way Tuesday night on the heels of Sunday’s 74-73 win over New York in the Midwest, is most likely to make it 0-for-6 in terms of getting to the playoffs since joining the league in 2006.

The Sky’s last four games are a home contest with Indiana and then a swing through the West at Minnesota, Los Angeles and Seattle.

They trail fourth-place Atlanta by 2.5 games with the four remaining and now have lost both the series with the Dream 3-1 and now the Liberty 3-2, whom they trail by three games.

Because of the toughness of the Chicago and New York schedules, the Liberty might have backed into the playoffs even if they lost Tuesday night and finished with a six-game losing streak because of the underdog status of the Sky in remaining games.

New York has its hands full with a road-and-home set with Minnesota Friday and Sunday before hosting Indiana next week
and traveling to Connecticut to wrap up the regular season.

The win over the Sky kept New York a half-game in front of Atlanta in third place but also moved the Liberty within a game of Connecticut and 2.5 games away from Indiana.

“That was a hard win. Thank goodness for our defense at the end,” Whisenant said after New York outscored Chicago 30-15 in the fourth quarter highlighted by a 22-2 run. On the Sky’s previous visit New York defensed Chicago into a WNBA record for ineptness in a quarter when the Liberty outscored the Sky 16-1 in rthe fourth quarter.

“We got 15 steals,” Whisenant continued. “We caused them to make 22 turnovers. And we ultimately outrebounded them so those are three important factors. So obviously we struggled shooting.

“We were tight,” he added. “Our team knows we are on the bubble for the playoffs and we’ve got four games left with the three top-record teams in the league. It’s hard to tell the top team from the bottom team in the league. At least to us, they all seem to be difficult.”

The Rutgers alumni presence on the Liberty again came up big with All-Star Cappie Pondexter scoring 19 points and shaking off an ankle sprain during the game; Kia Vaughn scoring 15, and Essence Carson, another All-Star, scoring 14 points. Additionally, Plenette Pierson had 17 points.

Carson had 12 points and Pondexter 10 in the fourth quarter.

Sylvia Fowles scored 22 points for the Sky and Epiphanny Prince, another former Rutgers star, had 15.

Chicago outscored New York 32-31 in the first half, though the Liberty stayed competitive with a huge advantage on the foul line, shooting 15-for-21 versus a perfect 8-for-8 by Chicago.

Overall, New York was 27-for-35, while Chicago was 15-for-18.

“Thirty-five free throws is tough,” Chicago first-year coach-general manager Pokey Chatman said. We don’t normally foul that much, but when you’re not playing well, I can’t get on the officials when you turn it over 20 times. We had a 14-point lead with 7 minutes left.

“Thirty points by a team in the fourth quarter by a team you held to 30 in the first half,” Chatman bemoaned her players letting this one slip away. “I thought you saw some women taking it to us and we reacted like little girls.
“That’s the honest to God truth. You saw some players take it to us and we crumbled. Have some poise. When you leave the huddle, remember what we called. I could go on and on. Four turnovers in the last six minutes. It’s extremely disappointing.

Though the Sky are barely alive mathematically going into the final 12 days of the regular season, Chatman said there’s still room to work on things.

“I want them to learn poise, passion. Play together. Stay together. Fight. Have fun. Enjoy it. Sometimes we look constipated out there. Relax. Have fun. They work hard for me but I think sometimes in a situation they get tight, looking for someone else to get it done.

“You don’t get a shot clock violation if you’re in an attack mode. You got the ball in your hands you can at least put your head down and make something happen. I recall on three different occasions we had the ball for a second and we tried to make a pass.
“You have to finish out. We’re not good enough to not close out games or not stay true to the scheme or not play with poise or not scrap and be blue-collar. That’s what it takes for us and it takes for 40 minutes, not 32.

“Regardless of the mathematics, you go home, you go to work, you try to eliminate mistakes, and be ready for yourself in terms of correcting things and be ready for the next opponent.”

Whisenant thought his team was tight at the outset and also cited the Liberty’s affect by Hurricane Irene, having left town before the weekend a day early to play Chicago so they wouldn’t be stranded.

“We were tight as a drum. I could see it in my players eyes and face,” he said. “It was a hard fought win but I thought that group that was in at the end played tremendous defense to stop Chicago and give us a chance to win.

“Because of the storm we had to leave a day early. So we were on the road two days instead of one. We were hanging in the hotel, so that’s tiring. We struggled to get back here. We couldn’t get to practice facility Monday (in Westchester County, N.Y.).

"We got up this morning and watched film and then we drove here and had a shoot-around.

“So all those things – that’s a lot of fatiguing stuff. It’s probably mentally fatiguing to get ready but that’s the life of a pro basketball player and these players have to adjust to that. We’re trying to rest them as much as we can and still prepare them for their next opponent.”

Whisenant was honored before the game for his recent 100th victory in the WNBA, including his time coaching the former Sacramento Monarchs, who he guided to the 2005 WNBA title.

At halftime Kym Hampton, who is now fan development leader for the Liberty, became the fifth and final former player to be named to this season’s inaugural Ring of Honor. The other four were Vickie Johnson, now an assistant coach in San Antonio;

Teresa Weatherspoon, now coaching at her alma mater at Louisiana Tech; former Rutgers star Sue Wicks; and Rebecca Lobo, the ESPN broadcaster and former UConn star, who, unlike the other four, was chosen by a fan vote instead of a special committee.

The Liberty are also sending a special plaque with all their signatures to support Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the Hall of Fame legend who announced last week that she had been diagnosed with early dementia but will continue to coach the Lady Vols.

Minnesota Campaign Trail

While a former governor and current congresswoman out of Minnesota have been prominent in the Republican presidential nomination campaign trail for 2012, the Lynx continue to can campaign for everything they can get out of this WNBA season.
Though a first playoff appearance and the No. 1 West seed has been attained, there’s still the best overall record to be claimed as well as promoting Lynx stars for the postseason awards.

Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve went on the stump for veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen in the MVP race in the league after Whalen scored 21 points in the Lynx 73-56 win over the Washington Mystics in the Target Center.

Whalen had 17 in the first half when Washington was still trying to stay competitive.

“She was my MVP,” Reeve said. “I think some people are writing about that. I think she definitely supported those writers that are saying that. She was my one starter that I thought was just balling out. We needed it.”

Maya Moore, the overall No. 1 pick out of UConn in April’s draft, who will be at the Prudential Center here for Sunday’s 4 p.m. game between the Lynx and Liberty, had nine points.

Crystal Langhorne, the former Maryland star from suburban Philadelphia, had 13 points for the Mystics and former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon had 10.

The next Minnesota win – the Lynx host New York Friday night – or Indiana loss – the Fever will be at Connecticut the same night – gives the Lynx overall home court in the finals if they advance.

“We just went on a drought,” Langhorne said on the game enabling the Lynx to take a 2-0 sweep in the East-West matchup.

“We couldn’t score the ball and we had some turnovers, and against a team like Minnesota who is so talented offensively, we can’t let them get transition baskets and things like that.”

Washington will host Atlanta Thursday night. San Antonio will hosted Phoenix in the only other game scheduled.

Minnesota, incidentally, is holding Washington’s draft pick, which will be a lottery number to be determined. The Lynx acquired the pick for former Tennessee star Nicky Anosike.

Silver Stars Eclipse Sun

The San Antonio win over the Connecticut Sun made the Silver Stars 2-0 in the East=West matchup in Texas that saw Becky Hammon, a former Liberty player, become the seventh WNBA star to score 5,000 points.

The win, which stopped a six-game slide, kept the Silver Stars 1.5 games in front of the Los Angeles Sparks.

Besides Hammon’s 16 for the game, former Baylor star Sophia Young and Jia Perks each scored 15 points for San Antonio.
Former UConn star Tina Charles had 16 points and Asjha Jones, another former UConn star, had 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Sun.

“I think what she’s achieving utterly amazes me,” San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said of Hammon. “People don’t understand how hard Becky Hammon had worked at the game since she came into the league.

San Antonio hosts a Phoenix team Thursday night fighting Seattle for the No. 2 seed behind Minnesota in the West and home court advantage in the best-of-three series that will be part of the playoff first round.

Mercury Stop Shock

Phoenix, coming off Sunday’s visit to Washington, stopped as hot Tulsa team on the road as former Auburn star DeWanna Bonner tied her career high with 25 points.

“I came out a little more focused,” said Bonner contrasting the meager two shot attempts Sunday in Washington. “I was looking for my shot, being a little more aggressive. I guess it worked out.”

Diana Taurasi had 23 points for the Mercury and former Temple star Candice Dupree scored 14.

“I think DB was shaving points last game,” Dupree joked about Bonner’s effort compared to Washington. “She had to make up for it tonight. If we can get her to play like that every game, we’ll be hard to beat.”

Tulsa rookie Liz Cambage, the second overall pick in April’s draft behind Lynx pick Maya Moore, had 16 points for Tulsa, while Ivory Latta had 15 points and Amber Holt scored 11.

Phoenix coach Corey Gaines won his 71st game to become the coach with the most wins in Mercury history.

“That’s great for Corey,” Taurasi said. He and I came up through the ranks together. So, really cool for Corey.”

Tulsa interim coach Teresa Edwards, inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, thinks the slew of games over the last 16 days is affecting the Shock.

I think we’re really tired. I think, in our minds, we wanted to play hard. We wanted to go out and do well again. But we just couldn’t do it. I kind of recognized that early in the game.”

Parker Keeps Los Angeles In The Hunt

Former Tennessee sensation Candace Parker had het best game since returning from a knee injury that had her sidelined since late June and scored 27 points.

“If we take care of business, it will be hard for us not to make it,” she said after the Sparks at home dropped Seattle from second in the West till third.

“She is our go-to person,” WNBA veteran Tina Thompson, who scored 12 points, said of her teammate Parker. “We are going to go to her so she can make those plays.”

UConn all-time great Sue Bird had 15 for Seattle, which jettisoned a four-game win streak fueled by Lauren Jackson, a three-time MVP, who returned from a hip injury that had her out virtually as long as Parker was sidelined.

Seattle has been in seven straight playoffs, traling Los Angeles’ current run of seven.

“We’ve still got four games left,” Bird said of the race for second behind Minnesota, which has a 6.5 games lead over Phoenix and seven over Seattle.

“We have a shot at second place, which would give us home-court advantage (over Phoenix).”

Bird hit two foul shots Sunday with 1.6 seconds left to give Seattle a home win over Los Angeles.

“To play as hard as we did and to have it come down to the final second is tough,” Ebony Hoffman said. “Tonight, we just came out with fire.”

Los Angeles goes to Phoenix Saturday and finish three at home, including one against San Antonio.

“If we want to make a push to be in the playoffs,” Thompson said, “We have to win these games.”

Dream Nightmares Over

Atlanta, struggling with injuries and other problems, started the season 3-9, making it seem like it was back to the draft lottery and not the postseason where the Dream surged from the fourth seed in the East to battling Seattle in three straight losses in the championship series.

But slowly Atlanta healed and now the Dream are feeling good after staying perfect against Indiana at 3-0 with a win on the road Saturday and Tuesday’s 92-90 win at home to move to 2.5 games ahead of Chicago in fourth place with five remaining, including another with Indiana.

The Fever, despite the loss, backed into the playoffs when the Sun rallied over Chicago and are three games behind the Fever and just 0.5 behind New York.

Sancho Lyttle, who missed a bunch of games early in the season to play for Spain in an Olympic qualifying tournament and then was sidelined for several more with back problems, hit a shot with 0.9 seconds remaining to give the Dream the win.

Angel McCoughtry scored 28 for Atlanta.

“We have amazing spirit with this team,” Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said. “I’m very proud of them. There were so many times when they could have folded up.”

Lyttle had 14 points and 11 rebounds.

Erika DeSouza left the game midway through the third quarter with an anke sprain.

Erin Phillips, the former Australian guard with the Connecticut Sun, had 21 points for Indiana and Tamika Catchings scored 20 for Indiana.

“We had way too many turnovers,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said of 19 turnovers, including one at the finish.

“This team has a lot of heart,” McCoughtry said of Atlanta. “We showed that again tonight and we’ve shown it all season. When you have struggles in the beginning, it makes winning so much better.”

-- Mel

Monday, August 29, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Minnesota Wins The (Regular Season) West

(Guru’s note: There is a sidebar below this in blogspot charting the hunt for playoff spots. If you are in melgreenberg.com just click the Mel's blog link on the left to get to the full archive. Material and quotes for this post, besides the Guru's own reporting, are drawn from team and wire service reports.)

By Mel Greenberg

The Minnesota Lynx knocked down the biggest of regular season goals Sunday afternoon, beating the San Antonio Silver Stars 72-61 on the road to complete a weekend sweep at 2-0 of the Texans as well as a 4-0 sweep in the regular season series to wrap up their first Western Conference crown and top seed in the playoffs.

“Winning the West was the big one,” said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle University star in Philadelphia whose Lynx (23-6) locked up their first playoff spot since 2004 earlier this month.

San Antonio’s double setbacks were costly but it could have been worse for the Silver Stars (13-15) in the tight race with the Los Angeles Sparks (12-17) for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West.

On one hand coach Dan Hughes’ bunch had a chance to put a little more distance than the 1.5 games lead they hold over the Sparks. On the other hand, they weren’t overtaken because of two Los Angeles excruciating losses on the weekend.

On Friday night the Sparks were stunned by the Tulsa Shock at home in the Staples Center when veteran all-timer Sheryl Swoopes raced down the court and hit a shot for a 77-75 victory that ended Tulsa’s WNBA-record losing streak at 20 games.

The upset ruined a celebratory evening for Los Angeles, which announced at halftime that retired Sparks star Lisa Leslie had joined the ownership group making her the first former WNBA player to invest in a team in the league, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

Two nights later on the road Los Angeles finished Sunday’s action losing to the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm 65-63 when All-Star Sue Bird hit a pair of foul shots with 1.6 seconds left in the game to reduce the Storm’s magic number to one to return to the playoffs.

The win also kept Seattle (17-12) in second place six games behind Minnesota but a half-game ahead of the Phoenix Mercury (16-12), who won a cross- conference game on the road at the Eastern cellar dwelling Washington Mystics 86-79 showing little weariness from the effects of a byproduct of Hurricane Irene.

Following Friday’s 95-92 loss at the Connecticut Sun, who rallied in the closing minutes, a change of travel plans to get ahead of the weather had Phoenix take an all-night Amtrak train down the Eastern seaboard prior to the system shutdown of the railroad.

But former Temple star Candice Dupree scored a season-high 27 points and superstar Diana Taurasi scored 21 to send Washington (5-23) to its eighth straight loss. The setback matched the third longest losing streak in the 14-year history of the Mystics, who tied for first with New York last season, collecting 22 wins and earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Swoopes, meanwhile, was not through for the weekend after Friday’s heroics that resulted in the team presenting interim coach and recent Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Teresa Edwards with two autographed game balls.

Her second one came Sunday after Swoopes scored 22 points and Tulsa (3-25) rallied from a 15-point deficit in the third quarter to win at home against Connecticut 83-72.

It’s the third time in recent weeks that the Sun blew a double-digit lead they held in the third quarter.

The result enabled Tulsa to combine with the Chicago Sky (14-15) in for the moment holding up playoff-qualifying parties for the second-place Sun (18-11) and the first-place and idle Indiana Fever (19-9).

Despite the Sun loss, Connecticut could have backed into its first playoff appearance in three seasons had Chicago lost but the Sky’s Epiphanny Prince, a former Rutgers star, hit a 3-pointer with 31 seconds left in the Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont, Ill., to edge the New York Liberty 74-73.

The win kept fifth-place Chicago, trailing the defending Eastern playoff champion Atlanta Dream (15-13) by 1.5 games, in the playoff hunt for the Sky’s first appearance in the six-year history of the franchise.

Atlanta kept its small distance ahead of Chicago by winning at Indiana 86-80 on Saturday night at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The loss combined with Minnesota’s win Sunday has the Fever trailing the Lynx by three games in the loss column for WNBA best-overall record which, if both teams reach the championship best-of-five finals, would enable Minnesota to have home court advantage.

The Lynx need a magic number combination of wins and Indiana losses totaling three to earn best overall record. The two teams split their crossover season series with each winning on the other’s court.

Chicago’s win Sunday put the third-place Liberty (16-13) in shaky status.

New York stayed 3.5 games behind Indiana and lost ground staying two games behind Connecticut. But the Liberty are now just a half-game ahead of Atlanta, though they won the season series 3-2.

However, they are only two games ahead of Chicago, which will meet New York again on Tuesday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., with a chance to close the gap to one and win the season series 3-2.

Both New York and Chicago after their Tuesday meeting have a tough finish to the regular season. The Liberty has a home-and-home next weekend with the Western top-seeded Minnesota Lynx and has two home games with Indiana and Connecticut, which both have 2-1leads in their respective series with New York.

Chicago, however, has a home game with Indiana, trailing 2-1 in the series with the Fever, and then a three-game road trip through the Western Conference finishing out at Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s games and other highlights from earlier in the weekend.

San Antonio Will Remember Minnesota

The Lynx started their four-game sweep of the Silver Stars earlier in the season with two narrow wins in the closing seconds within a week’s time and then Sunday completed a home-and home weekend sweep finishing out in Texas to capture Minnesota’s first Western regular season crown and No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Minnesota, which won 85-75 at home Friday night, is not ready to rest. The Lynx still need three more wins unless Indiana takes some losses to ensure best overall record for home court advantage all the way through the playoffs.

Two Lynx stars with No. 1 overall draft status led the way with former LSU All-American Seimone Augustus scoring 20 points, and UConn great Maya Moore, chosen in April’s selections, had 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson had 14 rebounds for Minnesota.

“It’s just a blessing to be on this team,” said Moore, whose UConn years saw two national titles, four Final Four appearances, an NCAA-record 90-game win streak and an overall won-loss record of 150-4.

“All of us have a really special situation, so I’m just excited to play well because we still have a lot of work to do.”

Minnesota, which was hit hard by injuries, including one to Augustus, won just 13 games a year ago and a slew of games were lost in the closing minutes.

Augustus praised her rookie teammate and the two may also be Olympic bound for the games in London next summer.

“She spoiled everyone with what she did in college, and now she’s come in and been everything we needed.”

San Antonio, which started the season 5-1, has lost six straight and 10 of 12 and was led Sunday by Roneeka Hodges, who scored 12 points.

Though the Silver Stars were to get a half-game back later in the night from Los Angeles when the Sparks fell to Seattle, San Antonio’s coach Dan Hughes, who returned to the sidelines this season, spoke of his team’s situation.

“I mean, big-picture situation, our season is to be determined,” he said. “They have to take ownership in that. It’s not an easy thing. You’re fighting some momentum that’s going the other way. The only way you make a change is by yourself and taking ownership of it going forward.”

Los Angeles’ Lost Weekend

Seattle is winning the close ones, while the Sparks are alive for a playoff spot only because of San Antonio’s inability to put some distance from Los Angeles in the standings.

On Sunday Seattle’s Sue Bird won another at the wire but instead of doing it with her well-earned reputation for bombing three-pointers, this time she hit two foul shots at the finish against the Sparks.

Three-time MVP Lauren Jackson, recently returned from a hip injury that had her sidelined since late June, and former Penn State star Tanisha Wright each scored 14 points for Seattle and Bird had 12.

Candace Parker, who was out nearly the same length of time as Jackson, but with a knee injury, had 19 points and 14 rebounds for Los Angeles while Ticha Penicheiro had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Wright had a shot blocked near the end of regulation but the ball landed in the hands of Bird, who was fouled by former Maryland star Kristi Oliver.

“Those free throws at the end for any player can be tough. It’s just you and the basket,” Bird said. “They (the Sparks) came at me so hard. I just pump-faked and took the hit.

“I’ll take a win any way I can get it,” said Bird, whose team while trying to lock down a playoff spot is also trying to finish second for home court advantage in the best-of-three opening series, potentially against Phoenix.

Add Los Angeles coach Joe Jellybean Bryant, the father of NBA Lakers great Kobe Bryant, to the list of coaches leaving Seattle unhappy in recent games.

New York’s John Whisenant was unhappy over a non-call that otherwise might have allowed the Liberty to edge the Storm for the second time in their two meetings.

Tulsa interim coach Teresa Edwards complained of a huge disparity in free throws between the Shock and Storm. On Sunday it was Bryant’s turn.

“I’m not going to say what I think because I don’t want to get fined,” said Bryant, whose team became the first Tulsa opponent on Friday to lose in 21 games, ending the Shock’s WNBA 20-game record slide
Los Angeles, in their history, which had storied moments in the Lisa Leslie era, is also the only team to lose a game, leading 25 points in the first half, and earlier this summer became the first to yield a 24-point lead in the second half, losing to Washington at home in overtime.

“I thought we played great defense,” Bryant said Sunday. “It’s just sad it had to end that way because, usually, you let the players make the decisions in games. So that was probably the saddest part about it.”

Seattle has beaten Los Angeles in nine of the last 10 meetings between the two teams.

They both meet again Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

“Everyone is playing for their playoff lives,” Wright said. “They have too many good players – you can’t afford to relax.”

After Los Angeles’ last visit to Seattle in which the Storm routed the Sparks, former coach Jennifer Gillom was fired and Bryant, who previously had a stint coaching the Sparks, was promoted from assistant coach for the remainder of the season.

Tulsa Reversal

After stopping the Shock’s record slide by beating Los Angeles on the road Friday night, Tulsa made it two in a row, treating Shock fans to their first home win since beating Washington earlier this summer by stopping Connecticut’s attempt to wrap up a playoff spot for the first time since 2004.

“To get a home win for our crowd was great,” Sheryl Swoopes said after scoring 22 points. “They have supported us throughout the losing streak.”

Interim coach Teresa Edwards also saluted the home crowd.

“The first one (Friday night) was sweet and all, but I think this one is even better because it came in front of our fans,” she said. “We’re starting to turn the corner. Our confidence is up and we’re not going to base our team on what anyone else (opponent) is thinking. We’ll do our best.”

Former North Carolina star Ivory Latta added 19 points, Tiffany Jackson scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and Amber Holt scored 10 for the Shock.

Second-year pro Tina Charles, the 2010 number one overall draft pick out of UConn, had 21 points and 10 rebounds for the Sun, which also got 12 points from former UConn star Renee Montgomery.

On Friday night, Connecticut had roared back against Phoenix at home to get a season sweep 2-0 over the Mercury, though the Mohegan Sun Arena crowd had to hold its breadth until Diana Taurasi’s game-tying attempt at the buzzer missed the part from beyond the three-point line.

Connecticut next heads to San Antonio Tuesday against a Silver Stars team that had routed the Sun on the Silver Stars’ cross-conference visit to New England.

Prince Rules New York

Former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, who scored over a 100-points in a high school game, collected just 10 on Sunday for the Chicago Sky but three game on a shot from beyond the arc with 31 seconds left to enable first-year coach Pokey Chatman’s team to even the series at 2-2 with New York heading into a showdown Tuesday against the Liberty back in Newark, N.J.

Erin Thorn, a former Liberty player, and Sylvia Fowles each scored 17 points for Chicago, which by winning stayed close to third-place New York and fourth-place Atlanta.

The Sky win also prevented Connecticut and Indiana from clinching playoff berths in the Eastern Conference while keeping the Sky in the hunt for their first postseason appearance ever since joining the league in 2006.

Plenette Pierson had 19 points for New York, former Stanford star Nicole Powell scored 15, and Cappie Pondexter had 14 points, while Kia Vaughn scored 12.

Pondexter missed an attempted trey with one second left that could have rescued New York, which had left town several days early to avoid being stuck by Hurricane Irene.

“We didn’t make any big plays down the stretch and we needed it,” Powell said.

Whisenant, whose wizardry on defense has kept New York in the Eastern race, said his team lacked the absence of such against the Sky.

“They got a lot of points in the paint and our defense shouldn’t allow that.”

Mercury Rises Against Mystics

Phoenix stayed in the hunt for second place in the West, staying a half-game behind second-place Seattle at the expense of the Eastern struggling Washington Mystics.

“We talked before the game about getting off to a quick start, making sure we were fluid on both ends. It worked, said former Temple star Candice Dupree at the Verizon Center after scoring a season-high 27 points while Diana Taurasi scored 21.

The Mercury had lost two straight.

Washington rallied at the finish before falling short.

Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne continued her consistent play for the Mystics, scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

Former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon had 15 points for Washington, while rookie Jasmine Thomas out of Duke, scored 14 to match her career high.

“It’s frustrating,” said Langhorne, a member of the 2006 Maryland NCAA champions, of the series of setbacks. “But we have a great group of girls and we’re going to keep trying to win.”

Dream Is Fever’s Worst Nightmare

There was only one game on Saturday’s card in the WNBA but it was a big one.

Angel McCoughtry had 20 points and former Duke star Lindsey Harding, traded from Washington before the season to Atlanta, had 17 as the Dream topped Indiana on the road.

Erika DeSouza had 14 points for the visitors and Iziane Castro Marques scored 11 as Atlanta, which struggled a long time before getting into a playoff contending spot in the standings, kept its distance from Chicago and moved close to third-place New York.

Tamika Catchings scored 22 points for Indiana, while Tangela Smith had 15 points and Katie Smith scored 14 but the loss kept the Fever from officially landing in their seventh straight playoffs and Chicago’s win Sunday stopped them from backing in to a slot.

“Our defense was very soft in the first half,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. “We did not start the game with defensive intensity. At the end of the day, Lindsey Harding was the difference.”

Looking Ahead

It’s another six-pack special Tuesday night when all 12 teams will see action.

Indiana gets right back on the horse and travels to Atlanta in the wake of the Dream win over the Fever Saturday night.

The worst case situation is not great for Indiana because a loss to the Dream and a Connecticut win at San Antonio puts the second-place Sun a half-game out of first heading into Friday night’s showdown in Connecticut.

The Sun, however, will meet a Silver Stars team needing desperately to get a win to help its playoff chances in the West, while the magic number is still one for Connecticut and Indiana in the East.

If both lose, they can back in Tuesday night if Chicago loses at New York, but the Sky will be out to really make things tight, something the Liberty does not need.

In fact, a loss to Chicago and an Atlanta win, drops New York into fourth with a chance Chicago could catch them in the final standings.

Washington travels to Minnesota and the Mystics are draft lotto bound while the Lynx are where the Mystics were a year ago but weeks ahead of the pace as the No. 1 seed in the West.

Seattle returns to Los Angeles, and the implications for both have been spoken in the previous sections in this post.

Phoenix travels to Tulsa, which, with games left such as one more with the Mercury, one against Los Angeles, one against Seattle, and one against San Antonio, and, even one on the Eastern side of things at Atlanta, can actually impact the playoff races in a spoiler’s role.

Tulsa’s Tiffany Jackson was already feeling her oats about such a prospect for the Shock after reversing the 20-game loss string to two in a row Friday and Sunday.

“Even though we can’t make the playoffs, we feel like we can impact other teams getting to the playoffs,” Jackson said. “Once you get that first one, it’s mental, you think you can win them all.”


Guru's WNBA Playoff Hunt: Most Up For Grabs Down The Stretch

(Guru’s note: The general roundup is in the post above this)

By Mel Greenberg

Fasten your seatbelts because it is going to be a thrilling but bumpy ride rooting your favorite teams to playoff positioning before actually the real fun in the postseason begins.

The only team that can enjoy the spoils of victory so far is the Minnesota Lynx, which wrapped up their first Western Conference regular season crown Sunday thus earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

But as coach Cheryl Reeve cautions, “there are no guarantees.”

Just ask the Washington Mystics, who tied for the regular season title a year ago with New York, earned the No. 1 seed, but then were quickly ousted 2-0 in the best-of-three first round by the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream, who had struggled down the stretch but in their third year of existence got to the finals and lost three narrow outcomes to the dominant Seattle Storm.

Having won the West, Minnesota will be spending most of its time against the East finishing up with the only unknown being who will be the fourth-seed, currently being contested by the San Antonio Silver Stars and Los Angeles Sparks, to oppose the Lynx in the opening best-of-three conference semifinals.

The Lynx are also trying to bag three more wins to earn best overall record ahead of Indiana and home-court advantage all the way through if Minnesota keeps making an advance.

Minnesota handled its own side of the fence quite well in series with the West delegations, beating Seattle 3-1, Los Angeles 4-1, including four straight after dropping the season opener on the road while holding a lead in the second half; swept Tulsa 4-0 and San Antonio 4-0.

Phoenix has played the Lynx tough and the series is 2-2 with one game remaining in Phoenix. Minnesota otherwise will be impacting the East race with a home-and-home this weekend with the New York Liberty and a game at home next week against the Chicgo Sky.

Seattle, holding a half-game lead over Phoenix in the West, needs one win or a Los Angeles loss to clinch a spot in the postseason. That can come in one-shot Tuesday in a trip to LA after Sunday’s narrow win at home against the Sparks.

(Is it just your Guru, or is this year’s schedule strange in its makeup?)

The Storm’s remaining games against the West after the L.A., whose series they lead 2-1, visit are one at home against Phoenix leading the series 2-1; one on the road at San Antonio, having already won the series with a 3-1 lead; and one at Tulsa, of which the series has already been clinched with a 4-0 lead. They also have one crossover game hosting Chicago.

Phoenix, moving close to a playoff berth, has a three-game lead on fourth-place San Antonio and a 4.5 lead on Los Angeles with six remaining. Tied 2-2 with San Antonio, they have a visit at the Silver Stars; tied 2-2 with Minnesota, they host the Lynx; trailing Seattle 2-1, they visit the Storm; trailing 2-1 with Los Angeles, the last one was coughed up in overtime, they host the Sparks, and leading Tulsa 2-0, they have a home-and-home with the Shock.

San Antonio fighting for its life has, as mentioned, lost out all four to Minnesota; They’ve lost the series to Seattle 3-1 with a home game left; they are split with Phoenix with a home game left; they lead Los Angeles 2-1 with one road game left and are 3-0 against Tulsa with a road game left.

They also host Connecticut, Tuesday night, and host Washington from the East.

Los Angeles, lost the Minnesota series 4-1; the Sparks trail Seattle, 2-1, with a home game left Tuesday night; they lead Phoenix 2-1 with a visit left; they trail San Antonio 2-1, with a home game left and they lead Tulsa 2-1 with a home game left. The Sparks also host Chicago in one last crossover game.

The East Hunt

Indiana holding a slim 1.5 lead over Connecticut, has two left with Atlanta, one at home and one on the road Tuesday night trailing 2-0 in the series; one left at Connecticut having won the series with a 3-1 lead; one left at New York, leading the series 2-1; leading Chicago 2-1 with a road visit left; and won Washington 4-0 with a home game left. There is nothing left to play against the West.

Connecticut, besides the San Antonio visit, trails Indiana, losing the series, 3-1 with a home game left; leading New York 2-1 with a visit left; leading Atlanta 2-1 with a visit left; won the series with Chicago 3-2 and nothing left; and lead Washington 3-0 with a visit left.

New York trails Indiana 2-1 with a home game left; trails Connecticut 2-1 with a home game left; won the Atlanta series 3-2 with nothing left; even with Chicago 2-2 with Tuesday’s home game left; and split with Washington 2-2. Oh, yes, those Minnesota Lynx have a home-and-home deal with the New Yorkers this weekend.

Atlanta leads Indiana 2-0 with a home and home left; trails Connecticut 2-1 with a home game left; lost to New York 3-2 with nothing left; won the Chicago series 3-1; and leads the Washington series 2-1 with a home-and-home left. There’s also a visit from Tulsa from the West.

Chicago trails Indiana 2-1 with one left; lost the series to Connecticut 3-2; is even with New York 2-2 heading to the Liberty Tuesday; lost the series to Atlanta 3-1; swept Washington 4-0, and for the hard part that’s harder, finishes in the West at Minnesota, at Los Angeles, at Seattle.

Ladies keep your engines running.

-- Mel

Friday, August 26, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Return Of Parker And Jackson Scrambles West Playoff Races

(Guru’s note. Material for this post with quotes drawn on team and wire service reports There is a college post below this featuring items on Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, Tennessee's Pat Summit, Rutgers Emigres to Alabama, and La Salle nonconference schedule. If you're in melgreenberg.com, click Mel's blog on the left column and go to the blogspot archive for the content).

By Mel Greenberg

Back in late June when All-Stars Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks and Lauren Jackson of the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm were knocked out of action within a few days of each other for most of the summer with respective knee and hip injuries the challenge in the Western Conference for the Minnesota Lynx, San Antonio Silver Stars and Phoenix Mercury was to compile as many wins as they could before the two of the elite players in the league return.

That may have not been an individual mindset on any of the squads but to outsiders the situation spoke for itself. The more separation you can build the least likely you will be threatened with playoff elimination near the end of August when the two would be back in uniform.

“I’d rather play them when they are all healthy, that’s the way I am,” the highly competitive Diana Taurasi of Phoenix said on a recent swing to the East.

True, its tough to get separation when the remaining Western teams not named the Tulsa Shock are beating up on each other, but ground could be gained by handling the East in the crossover games.

Last week both Parker and Jackson returned. Now Los Angeles (12-15) is moving fast toward the fourth and final playoff spot while Seattle (16-12) held its own and Thursday night’s 74-57 win over the forlorn Tulsa (1-25) squad in the only game on the league schedule moved the Storm into a second-place tie in the games behind column with idle Phoenix (15-11).

Minnesota (21-6), with its own agenda of dispensing with seasons of disappointment and composed with a talent-loaded roster, has taken care of its business by building the WNBA’s top record and a 5.5 lead over second place with seven games remaining in the regular season.

The Lynx have already clinched their first playoff appearance since 2004 and the magic number to win the West is down to three.

Seattle (16-12) is 3.5 games in front of Los Angeles with six games remaining and stays home Sunday to host the Sparks with the Series tied 1-1 and two remaining. Los Angeles first will host Tulsa on Friday night and the last two games against the Shock were a struggle.

The magic number to make the playoffs without slipping out for Seattle is four unless the Storm win the Los Angeles series, which means they would win out in a fourth-place tie.

Meanwhile Phoenix, with two more games to play then Seattle, has a magic number of five to return to the post season and trails 2-1 in the Sparks series with one left thanks to the rally and overtime win by Los Angeles in their last meeting.

San Antonio (13-13) has been on a dive since rookie Danielle Adams from NCAA champion Texas A&M was sidelined with a foot injury and now is just 1.5 games in front of the Sparks with eight left but a 2-1 lead in the series with one game remaining against Los Angeles.

Jackson Stars Again

Seattle made it 3-0 Thursday night since the Australian’s return last Saturday this time scoring nine of her 14 points in the fourth quarter. Jackson played in just 15 minutes with the game well in hand. All-time UConn great Sue Bird also sat out the fourth quarter.

Storm coach Brian Agler tied former New York Liberty and Washington Mystics coach Richie Adubato for seventh with 134 wins on the WNBA’s all-time listings.

Former Penn State star Tanisha Wright scored 12 points, while former North Carolina star Camille Little scored 10 and former UConn star Swin Cash had nine points for Seattle.

Tulsa’s Sheryl Swoopes and Tiffany Jackson each scored 12 points and Amber Holt had 10 as the Shock extended the WNBA’s longest losing streak in the league’s 15-year history to 20 straight.

“We executed the ball well and it’s getting to be that time of year,” Agler said. “I think that’s what Tulsa is doing right now … playing with a purpose.

“Offensively, they’re executing and as you’ve seen in scores against other people they’re knocking on the door. They’re playing better.”

For the second straight game the opposition was none too happy with officiating at KeyArena in Seattle.

On Saturday in New York’s narrow loss in the last second Liberty coach John Whisenant accused officials of choking on a non-call by not assessing Bird with a foul when former Rutgers star Essence Carson was driving for the potentially winning shot.

On Thursday night Tulsa interim coach Teresa Edwards, the all-time Olympic and Georgia great inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month in Springfield, Mass., was miffed at the foul shooting disparity in trips to the line.
The Storm were 22-for-26 while the Shock were a perfect 8-for-8.

“This disparity in free throws pisses me off,” Edwards said. “(Seattle) is a playoff, championship-contending team, and we have to give them respect for who they are, but we went, played hard and fought.

“… I’m not even made at my team,” Edwards continued. “I’m just mad about the dynamics of the game and the discrepancies with some of the fouls.”

Looking Ahead

Four games are on the Friday night card and two have exceptional marquee value.

Phoenix’s Taurasi makes her annual homecoming to the state of Connecticut against the Sun in Uncasville near the UConn campus where her collegiate career excelled from 2001-04.

The visiting Mercury, for the all the reasons listed above, needs a win to keep pace with Seattle and stay out of danger from slipping out of the playoff loop.

The Sun (17-10) are still chasing the idle Indiana Fever (19-8) in the East sitting in second place two games behind. They are only 1.5 games in front of third-place New York (16-12), which has the night off.

Connecticut edged Phoenix earlier this month on the road and a sweep would give the Sun home court advantage if both reached the best-of-five finals no matter what their conference seeds are in going into the postseason.

Minnesota hosts San Antonio in the first of a weekend home-and-home that concludes in Texas on Sunday.

The Lynx hold a 2-0 lead in the four-game series but both games were decided in the final seconds. If Minnesota wins, the Lynx can finish no worse then second since they have already won the Seattle series.

San Antonio cannot afford a loss, let alone a weekend setback, because with Los Angeles likely to beat Tulsa at home Friday night the Sparks would only be 0.5 games behind the Silver Stars.

In the other game, Washington (5-21) with the second worst record in the league and a slew of losses in the last minute visit the Chicago Sky (12-15), which needs a win to stay close to the Atlanta Dream (14-13) for the final playoff spot in the East.

Of course a New York meltdown could make things interesting and the next two games for both teams are against each other. Chicago, which has never been to the playoffs in the Sky’s previous five seasons, could get close to the Liberty with a sweep.

Washington suffered a home loss last Saturday night when former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince hit two foul shots with 00.7 seconds left on the game clock in regulation.

On Saturday there is just one game but it’s a big one with Atlanta, the defending Eastern Conference playoff champs, visiting Indiana.

The Fever are trying to stay ahead of Connecticut and their magic number is one to make the playoffs, which would come Saturday night with a win, though they may already be in the fold if Chicago loses Friday night.

Five games make up Sunday’s card with Phoenix at Washington the only Eastern seaboard game where fans might be dealing with the effects of looming Hurricane Irene.

Phoenix needs the win and Washington is playing for pride before hosting a live auction for charity after the game at the Verizon Center.

Two games have already been addressed. Minnesota returns the San Antonio visit and not much further preview analysis can be done until Friday’s result between the two is official. New York is on the road for the first of two games with Chicago.

Connecticut, needing the win, is at Tulsa; while in a key Western intra-game Los Angeles visits Seattle with Parker and Jackson set to battle each other.

-- Mel

Guru's College Musings: Delle Donne Soars Overseas; A Brief Reflection on Pat Summitt

(Guru’s note: The WNBA roundup is above this post)

By Mel Greenberg

Discussing the magnificent play of returning Delaware junior Elena Delle Donne with the recent gold-medal USA World University Games team in China, Blue Hens coach Tina Martin couldn’t be thrilled enough for the former national high school player of the year out of Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy.

When mentioned that the gifted athlete everyone predicted a great future for when she originally committed to Connecticut in the fall of 2007 had returned, Martin said that individual was always there through the controversy when she decided to opt out of her scholarship from the powerful Huskies and enroll at a school in her native state to be near her family and friends.

“I knew Elena was going to make the team and play great over there,” said Martin this week as Delle Donne was heading back from China.

“I think she’s in a good place right now,” Martin continued. “She’s matured, she knows who she is, she knows what she wants, and, just as importantly, she is in love with the game again.

“People forget that along with the acclaim these players are still kids trying to find their way. She wanted to be around her family and she has that.”

For those that have asked the Guru, at least at this moment in time, Delle Donne, who enrolled at Delaware with four years of basketball eligibility because she played volleyball her true freshman year, intends to finish up before focusing on a potential WNBA career in 2013.

League people have already been among those who have asked the question in side conversations during pre-game chit-chat sessions.

Ironically, because of two recurring knee injuries and a third overall at UConn causing her to miss this past season, Caroline Doty, the Germantown Academy graduate who was Delle Donne’s AAU teammate at Fencor, plans to stay with the Huskies also through 2013.

So there’s a potential reunion on WNBA draft day that summer if health and good fortune visit both players.

Delle Donne was recently placed on the preseason Wade Award watch list of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and she is likely to be on the lists of all the other individual player of the year honors such as Naismith and Wooden.

Understand, though, going into 2011-12, Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Stanford’s senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike are probably the frontrunners.

But even though the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne plays for a school in the non-BCS Colonial Athletic Association, which can compete with many teams from the other crowd, she will be a strong all-America candidate, if she stays healthy, based on her play in China.

On a roster with many of the elite college crowd such as Ogwumike, the NCAA Notre Dame national runnerup trio of Deveraux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Skylar Diggins, Maryland’s Lynetta Kizer, and DePaul’s Keisha Hampton of Philadelphia, Delle Donne had 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the gold medal win over Taiwan and was the team’s top scorer (15.7 ppg.) and rebounder (8.5 rpg.) for the tournament.

“Right now, she needs to take some time and rest her body after being overseas,” Martin said. “And then I hope she has everything she’s aiming for in the future – a great season and eventually the WNBA and the Olympics.”

Incidentally, without getting into dates that can be found at the Blue Hens’ website, Delaware’s nonconference opponents will be Rhode Island, Penn State (likely to be ranked) and Yale at home; and road stops at nationally powerful Maryland’s tournament with East Carolina and Lafayette, along with visits to two-time defending Ivy champion Princeton, Villanova, Wake Forest, Providence, and St. Bonaventure.

La Salle’s Nonconference Schedule

The Explorers under second-year coach Jeff Williams released their nonconference slate Thursday and it’s an intriguing one.

Besides playing the non-Atlantic 10 rivalries in the Big Five with Villanova and Penn, La Salle will host Rutgers (potentially ranked), Patriot League regular season co-champion Lehigh, and Fairfield. The Explorers will travel to Big East powers St. John’s and West Virginia; Albany; a flip-flop tournament at Long Island playing Florida and the host Blackbirds; CAA-contender Drexel; Loyola, Chicago; and a tournament at Dartmouth also of the flip flop style meeting Vermont and the host Big Green; and a stop at Northeastern.

As previously reported here, or maybe not, the Atlantic 10 tournament returns to St. Joseph’s for the first time in several seasons.

Former Rutgers Duo Heads South

Alabama announced the transfers of former Rutgers freshmen Briana Hutchen of Baltimore and Daisha Simmons of Jersey City, N.J.

Both were Scarlet Knights rookies in 2010-11 and will sit out this coming season per NCAA rules regarding transfer student-athletes.

Reflecting On Tennessee’s Pat Summitt

Many of you might think this section of this blog post should be at the top of the column with a headline, but when one is a longtime friend of Tennessee Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, who revealed the sad news on Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, which leads to what is still incurable Alzheimer’s disease, one must comply with her wishes.

And foremost in saying she still intends to coach, Summitt requested that as she takes to fight this demon there should be no pity party.

Much has been written quite eloquently in the last several days, but understand life is still very much ahead right now for the 59-year-old Lady Vols coaching legend.

A degree of tone of coverage seemed to undergo the same obituary mode that went into immediate effect at the time it was announced that former NBA great Magic Johnson had contracted the AIDs virus.

Given the best the medical world has had to offer, though long since retired, Magic is still very much with us two decades later.
With the wonderful love and support she has among her immediate family, personally, and in the Lady Vols program from top to bottom, Tennessee can be expected to spare no expense to try any medical procedure or pill that offers hope.

Knowing Summitt, who by the way was born on Flag Day June 14th, since Day 2 – she was hired in 1974 and the Guru entered the women’s hoops world in 1975 -- besides her being one of the first to jump in support of the Guru’s efforts to start a crazy idea as a basketball poll, she set the bar high for others to achieve.

One can say she was part of the magnetic attraction for former Temple coach Dawn Staley to leave the Owls in 2008, saying “I always wanted to coach in the SEC.”

Translation: The SEC and Tennessee have been synonymous most of the way so being at a school as South Carolina offers the annual challenge of beating the best. In fact, Staley even has some former Tennessee stars of Summitt as assistant coaches.

"Maybe they have a few secrets to help beat them," Staley joked at the time of their hire.

Staley almost pulled it off in her first years at Temple, losing in the final minute in Knoxville. The narrowness of the score helped show the Owls were on the way to becoming nationally recognized.

Meanwhile, it was noticed that there already is a call for the resumption of the Tennessee-Connecticut series, even if just one game, that was discontinued by Summitt in the spring of 2007.

Ironically the news broke on the day after she hosted a gracious party for the 2007 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Class that the Guru was part of along with two former Lady Vols in Bridgette Gordon and Daedra Charles as part of the six inductees.

Hartford Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs, who had spoken to former Tennessee star and ESPN commentator Kara Lawson, who plays for the WNBA Connecticut Sun, concluded with this passage:

The Tennessee-UConn rivalry, the greatest in the history of women's team sports, ended on Summitt's call. Our state misses those games.

Maybe it's selfish of me, but, man, I wish Pat would schedule a game for up here in Connecticut. Make it for the benefit of Alzheimer's research. This is the one time I hope she'd forget old feuds and give our state a chance to show her how much it respects her and her game.

No pity party.

"I know one thing," said Lawson, of Tennessee, Connecticut and ESPN. "ESPN would jump on it in a minute."

Actually, ESPN has been trying to broker a resumption for some time, but beyond that effort, a game might happen anyway at some point down the line.

It is known that UConn coach Geno Auriemma, the fierce national rival, besides offering an eloquent response to the news this week from Italy, had earlier reached out with a call of support, though at the time he might not have known the exact nature of Summitt’s difficulty.

It is known that Auriemma’s earlier offering might have already started a thaw on what had transformed into an rivalry decked with ice.

So time will tell.

And as Summitt indicated the other day there may be some adjustments as she battles this thing but her time is still very much in the present.

And, yes, the Guru will be wearing some apparel Friday colored Orange.

-- Mel

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Parker Leads Sparks Closer To Playoff Loop Beating Washington

(Guru’s note: The roundup of the other four WNBA games is on a separate post below this. If you are in melgreenberg.com click on the Mel’s blog on the left panel to enter blogspot and the complete blog archives.)

By Mel Greenberg

When Los Angeles Sparks superstar Candace Parker awoke Tuesday morning here in the nation’s capital little did she realize that besides the night’s important WNBA game against the Washington Mystics at the Verizon Center, she would have to deal with seismic news in women’s basketball and a seismic event that was seismic along the Eastern seaboard.

The seismic news was the revelation earlier in the day that her Tennessee coach, Hall of Fame legend Pat Summitt, had been diagnosed with early onset dementia – that type associated with Alzheimer’s.

Summitt, in making public the diagnosis that was done several months earlier at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said she was going to continue to coach the Lady Vols this season in pursuit of a ninth-NCAA title.

The seismic event was a rare earthquake on the East Coast, which was measured at 5.8 on the Richter Scale with the epicenter located halfway between here and Richmond, Va., and felt all along the seaboard with buildings shaking from Washington to New York.

Tremors are more likely to occur back home in Los Angeles.

On the court, there was the matter of repulsing a game-tying rally by the Eastern cellar-dwelling Washington Mystics before emerging with an 86-82 victory in overtime.

Parker, who returned from a knee injury a week ago on Aug. 16 that had her sidelined since late June, scored 19 points and hit the go-ahead basket with 38.9 seconds left in the overtime.

A few hours later in the Northwest on the Pacific Coast, the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm 15-12) helped the Sparks’ cause to make the playoffs, beating the San Antonio Silver Stars 63-55 to enable the Sparks to move within 1.5 games of the fourth and final playoff spot in the West.

“I had to come all the way back out here to experience my first earthquake,” smiled Parker, who has been with the Sparks since 2008 when she was the overall No. 1 draft pick. She is also from Naperville, Ill., near Chicago.

“I never felt one in California, so when I felt the building shake and the window shake … Yeah, it was a crazy day, today.”

Parker along with former Tennessee star Nicky Anosike of the Mystics got phone calls from Knoxville, Tenn., in advance of Summitt’s condition being made public.

“The coaches called me personally so I wouldn’t find out first on the news,” Parker said. “Obviously, we’re going to deal with it as a family. It’s obviously something she’s facing head on, she’s not hiding it. And that’s exactly how I know her.

“She faces adversity head on. She’s a true role model, when things don’t go right, how to do things. So, we’re still going to continue to support her. She’s going to be in my thoughts and prayers and I’m happy she’s still going to be able to do what she loves.”

After having escaped the Western cellar-dwelling Tulsa Shock (1-24) on Sunday, Los Angeles (12-15) had to deal with a Washington rally from a 12-point deficit before sending the Mystics (5-21) to yet another excruciating loss in the final minute.

Last month, with Parker still on the sidelines, Washington set a WNBA record for a second half rally, coming back from a 24-point deficit to win in overtime at the Sparks’ Staples Center.

But now the Sparks have won three of five since her return and with San Antonio on a downward course the last several weeks, Los Angeles has an excellent chance to slip past the Silver Stars (13-13) into the playoffs.

“We’re not playing pretty right now, but we’re finding a way to win,” Parker said. “The second half in Tulsa, we played well. But this has been a long road trip, we’ve been gone for days, so we’ll be happy to go home and sleep in our own beds.

“We were tired, today, but it worked out well, we went into overtime and got the win.”

Los Angeles interim coach Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the former La Salle star in Philadelphia and father of NBA Lakers great Kobe

Bryant who is on his second tour of duty guiding the Sparks, echoed Parker’s thoughts on the outcome.

“It was an important game for us,” Bryant said. “It’s a big win. Washington really played hard. They’re really big under the basket, they got 19 offensive rebounds and that kind of kept them in the game.”

Tina Thompson added 15 points and 10 rebounds to the Los Angeles attack, while DeLisha Milton-Jones scored 13 points, and Noelle Quinn scored 11 off the bench.

Former Maryland star Kristi Toliver in her annual homecoming game scored seven.

Terrapins coach Brenda Frese, her assistants and others from the Terrapins attended the game to see former stars on both teams.

Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne had 28 points and nine rebounds, while her former Terrapins teammate Marissa Coleman scored eight for Washington. former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon scored 14 points, and former Virginia star DeMya Walker of Mount Holly, N.J., in the Philadelphia suburbs scored 12.

When Atlanta, the defending Eastern Conference playoff champions, beat Chicago 83-80 on the road in the Midwest, an hour later, the Mystics were officially eliminated from playoff contention, joining Tulsa.

But the Tulsa and Washington records belied how they played against the Sparks.

“As I told the women before the game, it doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or pretty, the important thing is to get the “W” and that’s what we did,” Bryant said.

“(Washington and Tulsa) are the toughest teams to play because they have nothing to lose,” Bryant said. “Some players want to show the coach they deserve to be back next year. Some players make shots they didn’t make during the course of the season, so these are the most difficult teams to play and they play with extra energy.”

Bryant said when the earthquake hit, “I ran down nine flights of stairs because I experienced that Tokyo earthquake so I wasn’t going to be sitting around to find out what was going on.

“I knew what was going on. Of course, the first thing anyone thinks is some kind of terrorist because you’re not used to having earthquakes here. But I got out of there. I went outside and I was standing like this.”

Langhorne said she was still home when the ground began to rattle.

“My whole house was shaking, I was really scared there for a few minutes,” she said.

Walker said she slept through the episode.

Langhorne spoke of the frustration of yet another loss. On Saturday Chicago edged Washington here in overtime when Ajavon was charged with a foul on her former Rutgers teammate Epiphanny Prince, who hit two free throws with 00.7 seconds left for the win.

“This one was really tough, even with the comeback, we’re not even thinking about that, it was just losing another close one at the end,” Langhorne said. “It’s tough, that’s all I can say about it.”

Anosike tried to be a little more upbeat.

“It’s frustrating every night, but you can’t let it get the best of you because frustration is just going to lead to more frustration, so we just really have to focus on Chicago (on the road, Friday),” she said.

She spoke of hearing the news of Summitt.

“I was talking to Candace last night and she said, `Oh, the coaches keep calling me and I was like, `Oh, I have some missed calls from the coaches, too, at Tennessee.’

“But obviously we didn’t have a chance to call them back. But then, today, we got in touch with the coaches and they gave us the information this morning,” Anosike said. “It’s been a hard day, all day.

“I’m just glad Candace is in town and we can be here for each other.”

Mystics head coach Trudi Lacey and assistant Marianne Stanley have long relationships with Summitt dating back to Lacey’s days playing against Tennessee for North Carolina State while Stanley coached against Summitt at Old Dominion when the Lady Monarchs were a Top 10 team.

“I join my colleagues and friends and everyone in basketball in wishing Pat well,” Stanley said of Summitt, who once was a consultant for the Mystics, especially when former Vols All-American Chamique Holdsclaw played here.

“She’ll approach this challenge with every other challenge she’ll have in her life with strength and the kind of leadership we’ve come to expect from her,” Stanley continued.

“I’m pulling for her to have the support she needs to have around her that I know she has there at Tennessee and just continue to do what she’s always done –just love the game and be the terrific coach that she is.

“I was at home and checking something on the internet and then saw something on Pat, so I clicked on it and saw the news and said, `Oh my goodness.’ Just sorry to see that but I wish her all the best.”
Lacey also gave her thoughts.

“Sadden to her the news on Coach Summitt. But she’s as tough as they come. She’s a fighter. She’s surrounded by a great staff to support her and take care of her. People at Tennessee, the fans love her. So it is our hope that she’ll be able to coach for a long, long time and fight this.”

- Mel

Guru's WNBA Report: Minnesota Moves Close To First Conference Title

(Guru’s note: Material and quotes drawn from team and wire reports. There is a post above this on the Washington-Los Angeles game with reaction to the earthcake and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s illness’).

By Mel Greenberg

The Minnesota Lynx (21-6), the best team in the WNBA, turned aside the worst in the Tulsa Shock (1-24) and with New York Liberty All-Star Cappie Pondexter shooting down her former Phoenix Mercury (15-11) squad the Lynx moved closer to claiming the Western Conference crown.

The return of Lauren Jackson for her second straight competition since being sidelined since late June with a hip injury enabled the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm (15-12) to strengthen their move to the playoffs and weaken San Antonio’s shot after beating the Silver Stars (13-13) at home.

Atlanta’s win in the closing minutes at Chicago (12-15) enabled the Dream (14-13) to open a two-game lead for the fourth and final playoff spot in the East. Atlanta also helped idle Indiana (19-8) and Connecticut (17-10) to get near securing playoff spots in the East, while New York (16-12) stayed near the Eastern frontrunners. Los Angeles (12-15) stayed in the hunt in the West by outlasting Washington (5-21) on the road.

Veterans Taj McWilliams-Franklin took her turn in the Minnesota win-fest, scoring 18 points on the road to enabled the Lynx extend the Tulsa WNBA record losing streak to 19 straight courtesy of a narrow 78-72 win in Oklahoma.

Former North Carolina star Ivory Latta misjudged McWilliams-Franklin’s ability to stop her in the closing seconds and her shot was blocked to stop a late Shock rally.

“When I spun on her I just knew I had her,” Latta said. “I didn’t think her length was going to catch up with me but it did and she tipped the ball.”

Lindsay Whalen had 14 points for the Lynx, who opened up a 5.5 lead in the West over Phoenix, while rookie Amber Harris out of Xavier, who was the fourth overall pick, scored 13 points, and Seimone Augustus scored 12.

Tulsa’s Amber Holt came within two points of her career high, scoring 18 points, while Tiffany Jackson scored 13, and Sheryl Swoopes and Latta each scored 10 points.

“I came out with the mindset that we don’t have anything to lose,” Holt said. “We had our focus from beginning to end tonight. We’re getting closer.”

Minnesota’s magic number to win the West was reduced to three, heading into San Antonio’s visit to Minneapolis Friday night and the Lynx’s return to play the Silver Stars in Texas Sunday.

Coach Cheryl Reeve’s squad is also two games in front of Indiana for best overall record.

Meanwhile, here's a release on a new promotion involving Minnesota rookie Maya Moore, the former UConn star.

One lucky fan will have a chance to win a shopping spree with No.1 draft pick and All-Star Maya Moore in her home town of Atlanta following the end of the 2011 WNBA season. Kids across the country ages 6 to 14 can enter the Shot Clock Shopping Spree between Aug. 24 and Oct.13 online at NBAHoopTroop.com when they sign up to be an NBA Hoop Troop member.

Moore will celebrate one grand-prize winner of the latest edition of the nationwide Shot Clock Shopping Spree, inviting the winner to Atlanta to participate in a basketball-themed shopping spree. The randomly selected contestant will team up with the All-Star to learn shooting tips from the pro and win as much basketball merchandise as they can shoot together into an oversized basketball hoop in 24 seconds.

Following the launch of NBA Hoop Troop in December 2010 with an online destination, programming, grassroots events, and its Shot Clock Shopping Spree sweepstakes, which culminated in a grand-prize event in New York City, the program is continuing its momentum by partnering with the Minnesota Lynx’s Moore, one of the brightest young stars in the WNBA.

Dream Puncture Sky’s Playoff Hopes

Chicago hasn’t appeared in the playoffs in the five seasons of the Sky’s existence and despite another new coach-general manager in Pokey Chatman, season number six may mean another trip to the draft lottery.

Angel McCoughtry had 22 points for Atlanta including two foul shots with 2.5 seconds remaining to stop the Sky from tying the Dream in the standings.

All-Star Sylvia Fowles had given Chicago an 80-79 lead with 6.3 seconds left but Michelle Snow, who played at Tennessee, fouled McCoughtry in the ensuing possession in the game played in suburban Rosemont, Ill.

Fowles finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds while Shay Murphy scored 16 points.

The Chicago loss reduced Indiana’s magic number to return to the playoffs to 1 while Connecticut’s number is three. New York is at four with a home-and-home against the Sky begins Sunday in the Midwest.

Washington visits Chicago on Friday after suffering a narrow 86-82 loss to Los Angeles at home in the Verizon Center that occurred hours after a rare earthquake touched the region.

A separate post on that game is above this roundup.

Erika DeSouza had 13 points for Atlanta and Sancho Lyttle scored 12.

Atlanta next goes to Indiana Sunday.

Cappie Leads Liberty Over Phoenix

Former Rutgers all-American Cappie Pondexter helped New York shake off a tough loss at Seattle that occurred Saturday, scoring 17 of her 25 points on the road in the fourth quarter against Phoenix.

The win kept New York in third place 1.5 games behind Connecticut and 1.5 in front of Atlanta.

All-Star Diana Taurasi missed her second straight game for Phoenix with back spasms.

Penny Taylor missed a long three-point attempt in the closing seconds, trying to rescue Phoenix, whose magic number to reach the playoffs is five.

Former Stanford star Nicole Powell scored 16 for the Liberty, while former Temple star Candice Dupree scored 17 for the Mercury.

New York was able to survive suffering several shooting lulls after building leads in the contest.

Fast Finish Carries Seattle Over San Antonio

The Storm stayed six games behind Minnesota and moved to within a half-game of second place Phoenix and 1.5 games in front of the Silver Stars, beating them for the win.

Lauren Jackson, who returned Saturday from a hip injury that kept her on the sidelines since late June, had six of her 13 points in the final period while Tanisha Wright, a former Penn State star, had six of her 16 points, both for Seattle.

Sue Bird and former North Carolina star Camille Little had 12 points each for the Storm and Bird also became the 15th player in WNBA history to reach 4,000 career points.

“I think looking back on my career it will be something special,” Bird said. “You’re in an elite group when you think about people who have done that.”

“I thought we started to play with a purpose at the end,” Seattle coach Brian Agler said. Lauren made a couple of Lauren Jackson plays with turnaround jump shots and drop steps. And we got to the free-throw line a bit.”

Sophia Young, the former Baylor all-American, had 14 points for San Antonio, which has now lost four straight heading into this weekend’s home-and-home with Minnesota.

The Silver Stars are just 1.5 games in front of fifth place Los Angeles.

-- Mel

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

WNBA's Ritchie Dials A Presidential "Boost"

(Guru’s note: Material and some quotes for this post drawn from team, wire service and other website reports.)

By Mel Greenberg

The WNBA received a presidential “Boost” Monday and this one did not involve any White House offerings from Mr. Obama or First Lady Michelle in support of the women’s pro basketball league, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary season.

Less than four months on the job as the WNBA’s third president who was hired because of her superior background in the marketing world, Laurel Ritchie has apparently hit the jackpot with Boost Mobile.

The league and Boost Mobile, a non-contract wireless phone provider which is owned by Sprint, announced a multi-year agreement in which the company will be the league’s sole “marquee” partner and beginning with Tuesday night’s games the Boost logo will be on the front of players’ jerseys among 10 teams, the exceptions being the San Antonio Silver Stars and Phoenix Mercury, which have existing separate deals with other providers.

San Antonio’s agreement is with AT&T and Phoenix’s deal is with Verizon, but both teams will still be part of the league agreement.

No financial figures have been offered but Sports Business Journal reported the agreement is valued for the league at eight figures. Ritchie had discussed the negotiations with the league’s teams in recent months during her inaugural tour after the season got underway in early June.

Curiously, while detractors of the WNBA, founded by the NBA, have been projecting the current NBA lockout to potentially be the nail in the WNBA’s coffin, Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Boost, in discussing the agreement, told the New York Times, “With the W.N.B.A., we feel we hit the nail on the head.”

He said Boost found the league attractive because of the WNBA’s attraction to young, urban, multicultural fans that Boost considers its core customers.

So instead of hammering the WNBA’s demise, apparently we now have a case in which a strong financial deal has been hammered into the league’s future.

The deal is said to be the largest in WNBA history.

Although the deal comes during Ritchie’s watch in the WNBA, she told Sports Business Journal talks were already under way prior to her hire.

“The WNBA had been thinking about this for quite a while,” Richie said. “The process was well under way before I got here.”

Richie stated the deal “is transformative in its size, scope and breadth. Our focus is making the partnership as robust as we possibly can, and while I know there will be a lot of attention to the jersey component, we will be doing a ton of other activation programs.”

Boost Mobile will become only the second national brand to have league-wide signage on jerseys, the other being Adidas, the WNBA’s official outfitter.

Besides the jerseys, Boost Mobile becomes the title sponsor of the WNBA All-Star Game as well as the presenting sponsor for this year’s WNBA playoffs and Finals. The company gets signage in each arena and will be the sponsor of next spring’s draft.

Other amenities for Boost Mobile in the deal can be found in the league’s announcement on its WNBA.com website.

In recent seasons, five WNBA teams have entered into separate deals to have sponsorships on jerseys valued at $1 million, according to past reports.

The Washington Mystics in April announced a partnership with Inova Health Systems. That move followed last season’s agreement between the New York Liberty and Foxwoods Casino, which is a rival entertainment complex located near the Uncasville-based Mohegan Sun.

That’s also the home of the WNBA Connecticut Sun; the former Orlando Miracle purchased in 2003 by the Mohegan Indian Tribe and brought north to play at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Other jersey deals have been made between Phoenix and LifeLock; the Los Angeles Sparks and Farmers Insurance, and the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm with Bing, the Internet search engine owned by Microsoft.

Postseason Awards Watch

No, the Guru is not yet ready to declare whom he’ll be voting for in terms of the annual postseason awards.

There may be only three weeks left to the regular season but a lot of basketball has yet to be played in terms of how the final standings and statistics will look.

However, he is beginning at least to think of the core group in certain categories and so here is the thought process at the moment.

Coach of the Year

John Whisenant, New York Liberty – Considering low expectations, adjusting to a new home and trying to replace two veteran post players gone from a year ago, the Whiz has been doing it with smoke and mirrors, his White Line defense and Cappie Pondexter’s game-winning in-your-face heroics at the finish. In third place right now, the Liberty can rise, fall or stay put but for their play to date, he has to be under consideration.

Lin Dunn, Indiana Fever – Some will say no surprise that Indiana is at the top of the heap in the East, considering the veteran group led by Tamika Catchings. But Dunn gave the roster depth and milked it, especially in the wake of starting point guard Briann January’s knee injury early in the season.

Mike Thibault, Connecticut Sun – The finish in the standings will be the thing to add or subtract to his chances.

Cheryl Reeve, Minnesota Lynx – Yeah they are loaded. Yeah they got the best rookie in Maya Moore. But plenty of people at the beginning of the season still said “Show me.” And you might have all those great components but you still have to put it together and get the deal done. And at this hour, she’s done all that to be a leading candidate.

Brian Agler, Seattle Storm – Depends on the finish now that LJ is back but the Storm did a nice job treading water in her absence.

Dan Hughes, San Antonio – With little expectations and a fast start from the gate, he was a frontrunner early. True losing rookie Danielle Adams was costly. Again, depends on the finish.

Most Valuable Player

Cappie Pondexter, New York Liberty – Depends on the finish but she has made a slew of game-winning shots and carried the team most of the summer.

Tamika Catchings, Indiana Fever – An annual candidate, the Fever finish will be a strong determiner.

Tina Charles, Connecticut Sun – Though only a second-year pro after winning rookie of the year in 2010, Miss Double Double most nights, her status, as Catchings with Indiana, will be determined by the Sun finish.

Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta Dream – She’ll be on the ballot, but at what ranking number remains to be seen.

Sylvia Fowles, Chicago Sky – The next three weeks will determine her fate.

Sue Bird, Seattle Storm – After Lauren Jackson’s injury, the defending champions would have been nowhere without her.

Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota Lynx – Lot of candidates and different people on different nights have stepped up but the point guard runs the show and Whalen has run it well.

Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury – Has to be on the ballot but could be a split here because how can teammate Penny Taylor not be considered.

Becky Hammon, San Antonio Silver Stars – Depends on finish and a split decision is here, also, when one thinks of Sophia Young.

Rookie of the Year
(Comments not necessary, just names)

Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx
Kayla Pedersen, Tulsa Shock
Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky
Jantel Lavender, Los Angeles Sparks
Elizabeth Cambage, Tulsa Shock
Danielle Adams, San Antonio Silver Stars – Injury may reduce standing.

Most Improved Player
(Again, body of work speaks for itself for now, so just names)

Matee Ajavon, Washington Mystics
Renee Montgomery, Connecticut Sun
Epiphanny Prince, Chicago Sky
Essence Carson, New York Liberty
Jessica Davenport, Indiana Fever
Kia Vaughn, New York Liberty

Defensive Player
(Same thing for now, just names)

Sylvia Fowles, Chicago Sky
Tina Charles, Connecticut Sun
Matee Ajavon, Washington Mystics
Rebekkah Brunson, Minnesota Lynx

Upon Further Review

Once upon a time after a former coach in the WNBA went off at a postgame press conference during the playoffs, your Guru jokingly said to a league official that a contribution should be made to the media hospitality (they once had them) feed at the next city with the money the league was going to collect after they fined the coach for comments made from the podium.

“There’s only going to be a fine if you guys write about it,” the official responded with a smile.

The Guru brings up this tale of the past in light of Saturday night’s finish in Seattle where New York coach John Whisenant accused officials of “choking” on not calling a foul on Storm guard Sue Bird defending Essence Carson, who was driving to the basket for a potential game-winner instead of the outcome going in Seattle’s direction.

As of the middle of the night Monday into Tuesday when this is being written, there has been no word of any action against Whisenant, whose tantrum was covered in the Storm postgame email report, the Associated Press story and by Seattle Times beat writer Jayda Evans, who went even further in giving a physical description of Whisenant giving Michael Price the hands-on-the-throat sign.

Furthermore, Evans in her blog also had some comments on officials by Lauren Jackson, the three-time Most Valuable Player who returned to the Storm lineup since being sidelined in late June with a hip injury.

“If there’s nothing to say and they don’t action, that will be the end of it, that’s the way they work,” one coach commented several weeks ago to the Guru who was wondering whether a fine or suspension had been issued to Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver in that knockdown of the Phoenix Mercury’s Ketia Swanier.

“Whatever penalty they issued on the court, that may have been all that has been warranted.”

The Guru was a bit humored by Bird’s comments to Evans after the game in light of the recent Storm road loss to New York in a similar ending but one in which Bird went up for a game winner and appeared she might have been fouled but the action resulted in a non-call.

Bird was quite diplomatic afterwards shrugging the final play off saying there had been numerous opportunities before then to win the game.

Well, that was then, this was Saturday night.

Let’s go to the Guru’s version of the tape and see the verbatim of Evans’ game thread from the Seattle Times:

Bird had a little message for the pouty Liberty following a 63-62 Storm win. "I joked with them and said, 'Now we're even,'" said Bird of the one-point loss in New York earlier this month. "I got fouled at their place and you think you got fouled here."

Meanwhile, a post-sunrise game-day decision will be made Tuesday morning whether the Guru will make a quick auto return trip to Washington for the Mystics’ game against the Los Angeles Sparks.

If so, as usual, tweeting will occur from the Verizon Center. Either way, all five Tuesday games will be on the Wednesday morning roundup.

Back in 24 hours.

-- Mel

Monday, August 22, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Connecticut and Los Angeles Rally In Playoff Stretch Drive

(Guru’s note: Material and quotes for the post are drawn on team and wire service reports.)

By Mel Greenberg

The playoffs that are actually the WNBA playoffs are still several weeks away but inherently the tightly compacted standings in most of both Eastern and Western Conferences has a full scale playoffs under way to get to the playoffs and also seed positions.

But first, in Sunday’s trifecta of games on the WNBA schedule, two of them featured rallies while another was a not surprisingly cruise control effort by the Eastern leading Indiana Fever (19-8) topping the Washington Mystics 83-51 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The Connecticut Sun (17-10) took a while but finally shook off two tough overtime road losses and returned home to gain a comeback 96-87 win over the defending Eastern playoff champion Atlanta Dream (13-13) at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville.

The win gave the Sun a 2-1 lead in the series involving the Dream with one game remaining. The Sun win was a measure of revenge for Friday night’s loss in Atlanta when Connecticut let a fourth-quarter lead slip away.

Coach Mike Thibault’s squad had suffered a similar meltdown one night earlier at New York with both losses following the rout of the WNBA’s top team, the Minnesota Lynx at home last Tuesday.

The Lynx (20-6) went on to recover from their worst loss of the season and won at Washington Thursday and at home against Los Angeles Saturday night to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2004.

The Los Angeles loss further imperiled the Sparks’ chance to make the playoffs, even with the return of Candace Parker last week for the first time since suffering a knee injury in late June against New York on the road.

It got even worse for the Sparks (11-15) for a long while in Sunday’s other game at Tulsa in which the Shock (1-23) seemed they might avoid becoming the singular holder of the all-time losing streak record in the WNBA at 18.

That record will now be rewritten until Tulsa finally wins a game.
Interim coach Teresa Edwards’ squad was tied with the 17-game string suffered by Atlanta in the Dream’s 2008 inaugural season before the first win in franchise history occurred in Game No. 18.

Tulsa, which may have suffered one of its more disappointing losses of the season, led 49-35 with 7 minutes, 1 second left to play in the third quarter.

But with the Shock still comfortably ahead at 50-37 with 5:38 to play in the third quarter the Sparks lit up the Tulsa defense with a 16-0 run to take the lead near the end of the quarter.

Tulsa recovered briefly but then the Sparks pushed ahead the rest of the way.

Parker finished with 23 points, including 16 in the second half, for the Sparks while DeLisha Milton-Jones scored 15 and former Maryland star Kristi Toliver had 14 for the winners. Tina Thompson’s eight points for Los Angeles all occurred in the second half.

“We weren’t happy with the way we played in the first half,” Parker said. “I won’t say it was jet lag because we played with more energy in the second half. We just didn’t play well. We need to come out with defensive intensity to match our intensity on offense.”

Sheryl Swoopes, the last of the three founding WNBA players from 1997, though Thompson has played each of the league’s 15 seasons, had 17 points for the Shock.

“We needed this one,” Thompson noted of the Sparks’ poor road performance in which they have only had four wins away from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. “We haven’t won too many on the road but we needed this one to get going if we want to make the playoffs.”

Los Angeles is in fifth place 2.5 games behind the fourth and final playoff spot currently occupied by the San Antonio Silver Stars (13-12), who have been involved in a three-team scramble in the West with the Phoenix Mercury (15-10) and defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm (14-12), who just got superstar Lauren Jackson back after suffering a hip injury in late June and she played in the Storm’s win over New York at home Saturday night.

The Sparks head to the nation’s capital Tuesday to play the Washington Mystics (5-20) for the first time since last month’s game in Los Angeles when the visitors set a second-half record rallying from 24 points to beat the Sparks.

On Friday Los Angeles will host Tulsa and then on Sunday will remain home for a key game with Seattle.

Sun Back On Track

Connecticut seemed to be on the way to some danger in not being able to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons when the Sun fell behind Atlanta 26-12 at the start of Sunday’s game in the wake of the two tough road losses.

But then they rallied with a 26-4 outburst and got the win to stay two games behind Indiana in second place.

Former UConn star Renee Montgomery had 21 points and seven assists to help the Sun go into a five-day rest period before hosting Phoenix Friday night in what will be another former UConn great’s homecoming in Diana Taurasi, who played for the

Huskies from 2001-04, winning three straight NCAA titles beginning with her sophomore season.

“I thought she played a really good game tonight,” Thibault said of Montgomery’s performance. “She played the kind of defense we need her to play. Obviously she made some big shots. That’s the Renee Montgomery I expect every night.

“Last year we struggled with these guys. I felt like we should have won the other night too. We were one possession away from being 3-0 against these guys. But we survived. I felt we did a much better job on (Angel) McCoughtry and (Lindsey) Harding than we did the other night in Atlanta.”

Two other former UConn stars on the Sun scored in double figures – veteran Asjha Jones had 18 points as did reigning rookie of the year Tina Charles. Tan White had 11 of her 13 points in the fourth quarter and Kara Lawson scored 11 off the Sun bench, which outperformed the Dream substitutes 35-14.

“This was big to win this game because of the two games we lost on the road,” Charles said. “We definitely lost those games. I won’t say those teams beat us because we were leading and we let those games slip away from us.”

McCoughtry scored 22 points for the Dream, while Erika DeSouza had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Harding scored 14 points and Armintie Price had 12.

“They just cranked it up a notch,” McCoughtry said of the Sun resiliency. “They were desperate to win, losing three in a row would not be good. I think we should have cranked it up more but it is just one of those things.”

The loss sets up a major showdown Tuesday night when Atlanta visits the Chicago Sky (12-14), who are in fifth place but just a game behind the Dream after escaping from Washington Saturday night on former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince’s two foul shots with 00.7 seconds remaining.

The Sky, in their sixth season in existence, have yet to make the playoffs.

Fever Burn Mystics

Indiana took care of business handling Washington as Katie Douglas scored 15 points, Jessica Davenport had 14 and Tamika

Catchings scored 13.

The Mystics, arriving less than 24 hours after Saturday night’s tough home loss to Chicago, were forced into 19 turnovers with their 51 points being the third lowest in the WNBA this season while Indiana’s 31-point win was the second largest.

The game was less competitive than an earlier meeting in Washington won on Shannon Bobbitt’s shot at the buzzer.

Former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne had 11 points, as did rookie and former Duke star Jasmine Thomas for Washington.
“When we start playing well on both ends of the floor we’re a hard team to beat,” Douglas said.

Indiana stayed two games ahead of Connecticut atop the East standings and the magic number to clinch a playoff appearance stands at two. The Fever also trail Minnesota by 1.5 games for best record in the WNBA.

The Lynx and Fever split their season series at 1-1 so overall record will determine home court advantage in the best-of-five finals if both teams win their conferences.

Washington, whose poor record is exceeded overall only by Tulsa in the West, is 13 games behind Indiana in the Eastern basement and 7.5 games behind the fourth and final playoff qualifying berth with nine games left on the Mystics schedule.

If the Mystics lose at home to Los Angeles Tuesday night and Atlanta beats Chicago, then Washington, which set a franchise record with 22 wins in 2010 and tied New York for the regular season conference title, will be eliminated from playoff contention and join Tulsa for the draft lottery pool for the top picks in 2012.

Playoff Magic Numbers

As mentioned at the top of this post, right now a sort of playoff atmosphere exists down the stretch in the final weeks of the regular season as teams try to lock up qualification and seed positions for next month’s action.

Minnesota, as mentioned, has claimed the first of eight playoff berths, seed to be determined, in the 12-team WNBA.
The Lynx have eight games remaining beginning with Tuesday night’s visit to Tulsa before a home and road showdown with San Antonio Friday and Sunday nights this weekend.

Minnesota is 2-0 against the Silver Stars with both wins being claimed in the final seconds in the earlier pair of games behind the two.

The Lynx’s magic number to win the West is three outright over Seattle, but actually two because of winning the season series; five over Phoenix outright, the series is 2-2 with one game left; and three over San Antonio.

Likewise, the magic number three over the Silver Stars clinches at least third seed.

Phoenix’s magic number for the playoffs is five, while Seattle’s is six, and San Antonio’s is seven, all in terms of combination wins and losses with Los Angeles as of now.

In the East, all magic numbers in combination with Chicago right now, Connecticut’s magic number to become a playoff team is four, New York’s is six and Atlanta’s eight.

For Connecticut to get a second seed, the magic number is five outright over Atlanta and six over New York.
Indiana has already been covered in the game section above but the magic number over Connecticut to win the East is five because the Fever has claimed the season series over the Sun.

Looking Ahead

In terms of the playoffs for the playoffs, here’s what’s ahead this week on the WNBA slate.
Monday and Wednesday will be dark with no games scheduled.

On Tuesday’s five-game slate, as mentioned, Chicago hosting Atlanta gives the winner a psychology boost, but with plenty ahead for both teams. A Sky win causes a tie for the fourth spot in Wednesday morning’s standings, while a win by the Dream gives them a two-game lead over the Sky for the last playoff berth in the East.

Los Angeles is at Washington and the visiting Sparks need the win to stay close as the odd team out at the moment in the five-for-four playoff race in the West.

Minnesota is at Tulsa with the visiting Lynx trying to move closer to the West title and the host Shock trying to stop the WNBA record losing streak at 18.

Two other showdown specials have San Antonio at Seattle and the cross-conference battle between host Phoenix and New York, which is trying to stay close to the East leaders and not fall backwards. The Liberty are only 1.5 games in front of Atlanta, though they have the season series with the Dream in hand, and 2.5 in front of Chicago.

On Thursday Tulsa is at Seattle and the host Storm needs a win to stay further away from Los Angeles, especially if San Antonio beats the Storm Tuesday night.

On Friday, Phoenix is at Connecticut, both teams need the win; San Antonio is at Minnesota, both need the win for separate reasons; Washington is at Chicago just less than a week after Saturday night’s comeback by the Sky; and Tulsa is at Los Angeles, which cannot afford to lose unless help elsewhere involving making other playoff contenders lose occurs.
There’s just one game Saturday but it’s big: Atlanta at Indiana.

On Sunday, Minnesota is at San Antonio; Phoenix is at Washington; New York is at Chicago in a critical East game, while Seattle will be at Los Angeles.

USA Gold and the Next Draft

The United States won the gold medal at the World University Games Sunday in Shenzhen, China, beating Taiwan 101-66 as Stanford senior-to-be Nnemkadi Ogwumike scored 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds and Delaware incoming junior Elena Delle Donne scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dealt eight assists, nearly producing a triple double in the statistic sheet.

Delle Donne had team highs of 18.7 points and 8.5 rebounds.

With an eye to the 2012 WNBA draft in April, eight seniors were on the 12-player squad – Maryland’s Lynetta Kizer, DePaul’s Keisha Hampton from Philadelphia, Stanford’s Ogwumike, perhaps a frontrunner for overall No. 1 pick; Notre Dame’s Natalie
Novosel and Devereaux Peters; Tennessee’s Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson, and Southern Cal’s Jackie Gemelos.

Additionally, Miami’s Shenise Johnson and Rutgers’ April Sykes were finalists while Mami’s Riquana Williams was an invitee to the original trials.

-- Mel