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.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: New York's Historic "D" -- Minnesota Beats The Clock Again

(Guru's note: Summer league championship post under this one. If you are in melgreenberg.com click the mel's blog on the left panel to get to the full archive in blogspot. News and quotes from beyond here in Newark for this blog are drawn from team and wire reports.)

By Mel Greenberg

NEWARK, N.J. –
One point, 1.3 seconds, and a surprise deal were the highlights of what looked like ahead of time a relatively quiet day in the WNBA where just two games existed on the schedule.

One of those matchups existed here as an anticipated taffy pull in the Eastern Conference where the New York Liberty rallied over the Chicago Sky for a 59-49 victory in the second matinee special of the season Thursday in the Prudential Center accentuated by New York setting a WNBA defensive record in holding the Sky to a single point in a 16-1 run in the fourth quarter.

The WNBA, which started its 15-year history in 1997 playing 20-minute halves as the collegiate game, switched to the four quarters format of 10 minutes each in 2006 and New York is the first team to hold an opponent to a point in any of them.

The Liberty (12-8), holding third in the East, moved to within a game of the idle second-place Connecticut Sun (12-6) and two behind the front-running and idle Indiana Fever (14-6).

Chicago (9-12) fell back to a virtual fourth-place tie with the defending Eastern playoff champion Atlanta Dream (8-11), who were idle.

Both teams are 5.5 games behind Indiana, 3.5 behind New York but four in front of the last-place and idle Washington Mystics (3-14), who next host New York on Saturday night.

Washington has not played since suffering a last-second loss to Indiana at home in the Verizon Center last Friday night.

The other Thursday game was set for hours later in what evolved into another critical Western Conference showdown in Minneapolis between the renaissance Minnesota Lynx and San Antonio Silver Stars.

Lynx 40-year-old ageless wonder Taj McWilliams-Franklin knocked down a shot with 1.3 seconds left to produce a 62-60 triumph over San Antonio.

It was the second time in less than a week in which Minnesota shot down the Silver Stars in the final moments after All-Star Lindsay Whalen did the honors last weekend in San Antonio and suddenly the Lynx have a four-game lead atop the West.

Minnesota enhanced its WNBA-best record at 15-4 while San Antonio (11-8) fell back into a precise three-way deadlock in second with the Phoenix Mercury (11-8), and defending league champion Seattle Storm (11-8), who will unhitch their way from the other two in either direction Friday night hosting Connecticut.

Meanwhile, back here after showing off for Hall of Fame Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer that her former players can also get tenacious executing defense at the pro level, the Liberty partnered with Phoenix in a trade that can be likened to the WNBA version of the recent Phillies-Houston swap in baseball.

The Phillies got the long-sought right-handed bat in that one when they picked up Hunter Pence while in the WNBA New York finally found an experienced post player to make up for the two the Liberty lost after tying Washington for first place in the East in 2010 but then, as the No. 2 seed, were dispatched 2-0 in the conference finals by the Cinderella Atlanta Dream.

The spirit of the former Detroit Shock just got larger in the Liberty fold with the acquisition of the embattled Kara Braxton for fourth-year pro Sidney Spencer, a former Tennessee star who has not played the last three games because of back problems.

Braxton, who was suspended by Phoenix from Tuesday’s visit to Minnesota for “conduct detrimental to the team”, reunites with former Detroit teammate Plenette Pierson.

The real Shock, who will host the Eastern-leading Indiana Fever (14-6) in Friday night’s other game, moved to Tulsa before last season and sit in the bottom of the West with the WNBA-worst 1-17 record 13.5 games behind Minnesota, 5.5 games behind the fifth-place Los Angeles Sparks (7-12) and 9.5 behind the Western second-place troika who are holding the playoff spot positions.

New York Makes Chicago Effort In Fourth Quarter Nearly Pointless

To recap the day, we begin here where Chicago looked ready to pick up traction in opening against New York and building a 12-point lead early in the second quarter.

But the Sky, who committed 22 turnovers, could not sustain and take advantage of New York’s ineptness on offense, though the Liberty never went ahead until during a 14-0 run from the outset of the fourth period.

Former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince hit a foul shot to stop the Liberty attack for a few seconds but Chicago then stayed scoreless the rest of the way. She finished with nine points while Sky All-Star Sylvia Fowles had 11 points, shooting 5-for-8, but scoring way below her 19.8 average.

The Sky, who have lost four of five games, were 0-for-10 in the final period and committed nine turnovers against a New York team that had lost here in its temporary home to Phoenix Saturday night before going on the road Tuesday for a key win at Atlanta.

Chicago next hosts Indiana on Sunday.

The Liberty, who are 2-1 against Chicago in the five-game season series between the two, are 8-3 overall in their last 11 games.

All-Star starter Cappie Pondexter had 15 points for New York as Stringer, her coach at Rutgers, observed the game with her assistants from courtside seats opposite the Liberty bench.

Nicole Powell, a former Stanford star, had 13 points and 10 rebounds for New York, while Essence Prince, another former Rutgers star, had 11 points off the bench and ex-Scarlet Knights center Kia Vaughn grabbed seven rebounds.

Powell put New York ahead to stay breaking a 48-48 tie connecting on a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 15 seconds left in the game. Then Leilani Mitchell stole a ball, feeding Powell for two more quick points, and then after Chicago missed a shot, Powell grabbed the rebound and sped away for two more and a 55-48 lead.

“They had time to prepare for us and I thought (Chicago first-year coach-general manager) Pokey (Chatman) did good job having them prepared to stop us,” New York first-year coach-general manager John Whisenant said.

“We missed some shots and missed some more. Fortunately, and this is what I preach to our team since I came here, is defense will keep you in the game,” he continued.

“When you’re down, you’ve got to get stops, because you’re not catching up if you let them score. But our team stayed focus and they believed in what they were doing. We were able to start making some shots and held them to one point in the fourth quarter, which is pretty good defense.”

It could have been a total shutout in the last period if teams were permitted to defend foul shots.

“What I’m as proud of as a coach is my players believed in what I’ve been preaching, they stayed with us,” Whisenant noted. “I think our players got more excited as we saw them wearing down. We got the lead that we never had until then and that empowered us and probably discouraged them, that’s what our defense is meant to do.”

The Rutgers trio on the Liberty knows something about defense having played under Stringer’s famed schemes.

Powell played for Whisenant executing his White Line defense when both were with the former Sacramento Monarchs.

“We still stayed strong on defense regardless of how we were shooting the ball and I thought that was a real test to our mental toughness that I don’t think we’ve seen this year,” Powell said of the New York win.

“Sometimes you don’t shoot the ball well, you have to rely on defense, and that’s our bread and butter of our team. It creates offense for us and we got some steals and transitions because of the defense.”

Chatman, a former LSU coach, wad dismayed over her team’s ability to hold New York to 59 points and still lose the game, noting the 22 turnovers as one chief cause.

“I think they’re one of the hottest teams in the league right now,” Chatman said. “They scored 59 points at home. And we’re a bad road team, you’re suppose to win … 59 points is enough to win on the road.”

Fowles, who took just eight shots, spoke of the frustration at the finish.

“We just weren’t doing what we needed to do,” she said. “The defensive pressure picked up in the fourth quarter and we couldn’t handle it. We didn’t get what we normally get like in the first three quarters, and that’s what happens when you don’t progress in the fourth quarter.”

Liberty-Mercury Trade

Though younger pros Kia Vaughn from Rutgers and Quanitra Hollingsworth from Virginia Commonwealth have given New York serviceable play, Whisenant has often referred to the lack of experience in the post since Taj McWilliams-Franklin signed a free agent deal with Minnesota in the offseason and Janel McCarville decided she needed to rest her body after a rugged winter playing overseas.

Plenette Pierson has been one reliable force to lead the inside attack.

So acquiring Braxton, 6-foot-6 post player, is a major plus with her 10.6 scoring and 4.9 rebounding averages in 18 games with Phoenix this season.

“Kara is an All-Star player with championship experience that has been successful in the league for a number of years and will make an immediate impact on the court,” Whisenant said in a statement in New York’s announcement of the trade.

Braxton played on the 2006 and 2008 Detroit WNBA champions coached by Bill Laimbeer, who made her the seventh overall pick out of Georgia in 2005. She was an All-Star in 2007.

“We feel this move increases our depth in the post and sets us up for further success as we look to build a championship caliber team,” Whisenant said.

Braxton has a controversial past in serving a six-game suspension in Detroit at the start of the 2009 season for a drunk driving charge the previous winter. She missed two games in 2007 for a separate DUI charge and served an additional one-game suspension in 2008 for her role in the infamous fight in a game between Pierson and Los Angeles then-rookie superstar Candace Parker that imploded into a free-for-all.

At Georgia in February 2004 Hall of Fame coach Andy Landers kicked Braxton off the team after her fourth suspension in two seasons for violating team rules.

In sending Braxton East, Phoenix Hall of Fame legend and general manager Ann Meyers-Drysdale said in the Mercury announcement of the deal, “This was not an easy decision. However, we feel this is the right move in continuing our efforts to build a successful team within a first-class organization.”

But looking ahead, it is easy to see why Whisenant would fortify his squad for the stretch run with Braxton.

Though 3 of the next 5 games on the Liberty schedule will be against the lowly Washington Mystics, whom Pondexter cautions are still a threat on a given night, New York still has a pair of games each with Seattle and Minnesota, as well as a return visit to Phoenix out of the West, while in the East, there are two games each with Indiana, Connecticut, and Chicago.

Braxton increases coping with the challenges of the remaining games and possibly could mean a deep playoff run given the way the Liberty has developed defensively under Whisenant.

Spencer’s departure removes the reminder of the most reviled deal by the Liberty fan base.

Drafted 25th overall by the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2007 after Spencer, a 6-3 guard, had helped Tennessee to the first of two straight NCAA titles, former Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski dealt its 2010 first-round pick to the Sparks prior to the 2009 season for Spencer.

When the Liberty failed to make the playoffs in 2009, it became a lottery pick, which Los Angeles moved to Minnesota for Noelle Quinn to complete a three-team deal at the time of the original swaps.

The Lynx later dealt the pick, that had become the lottery winner, to the Connecticut Sun along with former UConn star Renee Montgomery for Lindsay Whalen and Connecticut used the pick to last year to select overall No. 1 UConn sensation Tina Charles, who grew up in the Liberty’s backyard in Queens.

Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said of Spencer, who is expected to play Sunday night when Connecticut visits, “Sydney is a player we have had our eyes on in the past. She comes from a collegiate program in the University of Tennessee and her ability to shoot the ball will be a valuable asset in our program.”

Braxton is expected to play for the Liberty Saturday night in Washington.

Landslide Lynx

A year ago when Seattle was mopping up the West with one of the gaudiest records in WNBA history at 28-6 on the way to the Storm’s second league title, former UConn great Sue Bird was telling people down the stretch that the record belied the number of games Seattle found itself in trouble either at halftime or the third or fourth quarters before rallying for wins.

That was Seattle. This Is Minnesota.

The Lynx, who in part because of weakened rosters from injuries in the past had trouble holding leads, are winning this season in all different ways closing the deal.

Some have been blowouts while others have been last-second daggers.

Two of those have been thrown in the last week at the San Antonio Silver Stars, including Thursday night’s game-winner from Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who finished with a game-high 18 points while former Stanford star Candice Wiggins scored 15, including a career-high five 3-pointers in the 62-60 win.

San Antonio’s Sophia Young, the former Baylor star, scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, while Becky Hammon scored 15 in the Texans’ third straight loss.

Only 11.6 seconds were left when Lindsay Whalen drove the length of the floor and flipped the ball to where McWilliams-Franklin and Rebekkah Brunson were open.

The pass, according to the Associated Press description, glanced off Brunson’s hand to McWilliams-Franklin, who fired the game-winner from 18 feet.

“Lindsay sees a lot of things,” said McWilliams-Franklin, who once played for the Philadelphia Rage in the former American Basketball League. “I’m so slow I was wide open.”

McWilliams-Franklin and Whalen were once teammates on the Connecticut Sun.

“I don’t know if there’s a more consistent player in that range,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said of her free-agent heist from the New York Liberty. “If you give her the shot, I feel like every time she shoots it, it’s going to go in from that range.

“She’s money in the bank from 15 feet, 15 to 17,” Reeve said.

Minnesota extended its franchise record win streak to eight and has won
10 of 11 games.

On a night when rookie sensation Maya Moore went scoreless and Brunson had just six points to go with her 13 rebounds, the Lynx found other ways to bedevil the Silver Stars.

“That’s the way the game goes sometimes,” Hammon said of the two narrow losses to the Lynx. “But we’ve got to shake these off because we competed well. Down the stretch, we don’t know. We’ve got more games to come and playoffs in the future, so some of these little heartbreakers you’ve got to let go and do better next time.”

Minnesota next goes Sunday to Los Angeles, where the struggling Sparks could soon get Candace Parker back from her knee injury suffered in late June here in Newark against New York.

The Sparks cannot afford to lose much more ground from the fourth-place slot that is also the final playoff spot. They just beat out Minnesota for fourth last season to make the playoffs but the Lynx got the last laugh winning the lotto and getting Moore.

McWilliams-Franklin spoke of the two narrow wins against San Antonio but refrained from such words as destiny and karma in discussing Minnesota’s success to date.

“We’re lucky,” she said. “The shot that Lindsay hit over Jayne Appel, you can’t draw things up like that. The shot today, hitting off someone’s hands. You can’t say, `This is what we meant to do.’ It’s just basically lucky.”

-- Mel

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