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 03, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Moore's Play Extends Minnesota's Western Lead

(Guru’s note: The Philly summer league semifinals are listed below this post. If you are in melgreenberg.com, click Mel’s blog on the left panel to get to the full archive in blogspot. Material for this post and quotes drawn from team and Associated Press reports.).

By Mel Greenberg

Minnesota is starting to put a little distance between the Lynx and the rest of the WNBA’s Western Conference, though several notches below in the standings the injury-riddled Seattle Storm is coping to make sure it can take defense of its WNBA title into the postseason.

Meanwhile over in the Eastern Conference the New York Liberty are minus one coach, one general manager, two post players, one arena, and several thousand fans from a year ago but the émigrés to the New Jersey side of the Hudson River are finding ways to stay in the hunt to return to the postseason.

That’s what is known off the three WNBA games played Tuesday night and the recap begins out of Minneapolis where rookie Maya Moore’s coach Cheryl Reeve is starting to sound like Moore’s college coach Geno Auriemma at UConn.

Perhaps it is their Philadelphia upbringing that results in the similarity.

The Lynx went up 2-1 in the five-game series with the Phoenix Mercury by taking over in the fourth quarter at the Target Center for a 90-73 victory but afterwards second-year coach Cheryl Reeve was able to find something to complain about despite a franchise-best seventh straight win and ownership of the best record in the WNBA at 14-4.

Glancing the stat sheet showing a 62 percent effort on free throw attempts, Reeve, who played at La Salle University in the late 1980s, jested to the media, "We actually just fired our free throw coach and you guys can submit your resumes.

"I'm happy that we won, but there were a lot of things we didn't do real well. Typical coach, griping and complaining."

Reeve couldn’t complain much about the bottom line several hours later with news from the Northwest that Seattle had beaten San Antonio 78-64 enabling Minnesota to open a three-game lead over the Silver Stars (11-7) in the West.

Phoenix (11-8) dropped into a third place tie with Seattle (11-8) at 3.5 games behind Minnesota but still 3.5 ahead of the fifth-place Los Angeles Sparks (7-11), who are coming off another long road trip to host the Connecticut Sun (11-6) Wednesday afternoon in the lone game on the WNBA schedule.

Moore, named WNBA rookie of the month earlier in the day, lived up to the honor Tuesday as well as the hype of being the overall No. 1 pick in April’s draft.

The native of the Atlanta suburbs scored 22 points to outduel another UConn legend in 2003 graduate Diana Taurasi, who played with foul trouble but still scored 20 points for the Mercury, who have lost four of five games after winning nine of 10.

"My teammates were setting great screens for me, we were moving the ball, and I was just feeling it," Moore said. "The energy was good and the ball was going in."

Seimone Augustus, a former LSU star, No. 1 overall pick, and current winner of the Western Conference player of the month, added 21 points to the Lynx total.

Minnesota is finally turning the tables on its Western stepsisters who have dominated the Lynx in the past such as Phoenix, which won WNBA titles in 2007 and 2009 by acquiring lottery picks such aa Taurasi, the overall pick in 2004, and in 2006 former Mercury star Cappie Pondexter, the Rutgers all-American who was dealt to New York prior to last season.

"They've proven themselves and won championships, and we want to be where they are," Augustus said. "If we're going to pick a fight, we're going to pick a fight with the best in the West."

The Mercury were missing starting center Kara Braxton, who was handling a family matter.

Despite Minnesota’s success, Reeve speaks in the language of surfers knowing in the Western Conference that beyond one conquered wave another challenging one is just ahead.

This week that would be San Antonio, which had been an early surprise and frontrunner but has lost two straight after the setback in Seattle.

On Sunday, Minnesota prevailed on Lindsay Whalen’s shot before time expired over the Texans in the Alamo City in the first meeting of the two and now they meet again in the Twin Cities on Thursday.

"It's just on to the next one, one at a time," Reeve said after the Mercury had been conquered in the fourth quarter off a 14-2 run. “It can turn in an instant, for whatever reason, and we don't want to be that team that lets our guard down."

Although Phoenix and Minnesota will meet two more times in the regular season, both times in the Arizona desert, Mercury coach Corey Gaines already has an eye to a potential penultimate battle in the playoffs.

"It's going to be interesting," Gaines said. "The way I see it, we'll probably meet them down the line in the Western Conference championship. It should be good. I've got veterans, so we don't need home court."

Storm’s Start Dooms Silver Stars

Though missing their three time MVP Lauren Jackson for most of the season because of a hip injury and likely to miss the 30-year-old Australian next summer until after the Olympics, Seattle locked her up for a long-term extension.

Then the Storm went out and celebrated the signing of their injured superstar by shooting 14 of 17 (82.4 percent) from the field in the first quarter to lead 31-19 and extend the differential to 18 points in the second quarter.

However San Antonio rallied and got to within a point later in the third period until former UConn great Sue Bird’s 3-pointer at the end of the quarter got the Storm back in control with an eight-point lead and an eventual 78-64 victory to keep the Silver Stars winless is Seattle since 2007.

Bird finished with 17 points and her former Huskies teammate Swin Cash scored 16 for the Storm.

"Yeah, that one really hurt us," San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said about Bird's trey.

"We didn't get the matchup on that situation, but that's what she does for them. We have to recognize that. She's a good player and is going to make those shots. That gave them some separation to play with after we'd gotten back into it."

Former Penn State star Tanisha Wright added 12 points and seven assists for Seattle, while the Silver Stars’ Scholanda Robinson scored 12 points, Becky Hammon 11 and Sophia Young and Jia Perkins had 10 points each.

"They came out and shot the lights out," Hammon said. "I thought we did a good job to fight and pull back within one, but at that point I think we had just expended so much energy to get ourselves back in the game that we didn't finish well."

Jackson and Los Angeles star Candace Parker (knee) got injured during the same week earlier in the season but Parker is expected back sooner so the Storm and the others in the West above the fifth-place Sparks need to keep distance as much as possible should the Sparks regain their tenacity down the stretch.

Los Angeles will be trying to avoid falling further behind Wednesday when Connecticut visits to start a three-game road swing through the West and will look to beat the Sparks. That would bring the Sun within a game of the first-place and idle Indiana Fever (14-6) in the East.

Liberty Takes Season Series Over Atlanta

New York got some revenge on the road for last season’s 2-0 dispatch in the Eastern finals by Atlanta in grabbing a 85-75 victory to take the season series 3-2 over the Dream (8-11) in the last meeting prior to potential rematches in the playoffs.

But New York’s win at Phillips Arena Tuesday night was a move in the right direction while Atlanta’s loss went the opposite way with a second-straight setback after the Dream appeared to be gaining a stronghold on a playoff run.

The Liberty, co-champions of East with Washington in the 2010 regular season, hold third place but just 2.5 games out of first and 1.0 behind Connecticut while opening up a 3.0 game advantage over the fifth place Dream, who are a half-game behind the Chicago Sky (9-11).

New York will host Chicago in a key matinee attraction, the second of the season, Thursday afternoon at 12 p.m. at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

That’s where the Liberty has relocated for the next three summers with a drop in the fan base while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations.

The New York staff and roster also underwent renovation in the winter.

Anne Donovan, who made the announcement prior to the 2010 tipoff, returned to the college coaching ranks at Seton Hall while Hall of Fame legend Carol Blazejowski was let go from her longtime position as a vice president and general manager in the front office.

She has since returned to a position at her alma mater at Montclair State.

Meanwhile veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin signed on as a free agent to help Minnesota’s cause and Janel McCarville decided the effects of European ball demanded some rest away from the summer scene.

Despite all that, former Sacramento coach-general manager John Whisenant, who’s NBA Kings ownership dismantled the Monarchs in the winter of 2009-10, came East to take up the dual role with the Liberty.

Instituting his White Line defense, New York is getting results though the Liberty’s long-range shooting was the story in the win over Atlanta.

Leilani Mitchell, one of the top perimeter shooters in the WNBA, sank four of them in the fourth quarter helping New York’s overall effort from beyond the arc making 11 of 19 attempts.

Pienette Pierson topped the New York attack with 20 points, while Cappie Pondexter scored 16, and former Stanford star Nicole Powell had 13.

"We felt like Atlanta was getting back in sync to where they were last year in the playoffs," Whisenant said having seen the Dream up close and personal through much of the first half of the season. "They had won five in a row and then lost a tough game at Connecticut they probably should have won.

"We were expecting it to be a playoff kind of game, and we played well."

Owning a potential tiebreak with Atlanta could be big down the stretch, Whisenant noted.

"With a couple more wins we could be in first place but with a couple more losses we could be in next to last place," he said of the tight race in the East.

Pondexter, a veteran of two WNBA titles in Phoenix, also knows the implications of a stretch run.

"I just know we need to continue to win to make the playoffs," she said. "I cannot even begin to talk about the playoffs until we win these upcoming games. But if we do continue to win, we will continue to move up that East ladder."

Mitchell had her own ideas about what it took to stop Atlanta, especially in the fourth quarter when she scored 12 points.

"I was just trying to be aggressive," Mitchell said. "We always set up plays for Cappie, because she is so good and our playmaker and scorer, but I wanted to get in there and help us get the win."

Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors attributed New York’s perimeter success on “broken plays” by her team.

She also cited other factors.

"If we rebound, it fits right into our game so we can push it and run," Meadors said. "We didn't have enough rebounds tonight."
Atlanta fell one-half game behind Chicago in the race for the conference's fourth and final playoff spot.
Angel McCoughtry, the overall top pick of the 2009 draft out of NCAA runnerup Louisville, led the Dream with 24 points, though coming off the bench for the second straight game. Earlier in the day she was named the Eastern Conference player of the month.

Former Duke star Lindsey Harding added 14 with nine assists.

Atlanta’s next game doesn’t get easier when Seattle visits Sunday in a rematch of last season’s championship series in which the Storm finished their domination of the WNBA with a 3-0 sweep, though each game was decided by a narrow outcome.

-- Mel

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