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