Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, 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


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