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 19, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Pondexter Light's Liberty Rally Over Sun

(Guru’s note: Material and quotes from beyond the game site for this blog were drawn on team and wire service reports).

By Mel Greenberg

Before the New York Liberty got under way to host the Connecticut Sun at the Prudential Center in one of three WNBA games on Thursday’s schedule, the Guru was having a conversation with Sun media relations director Bill Tavares about the implications in the Eastern playoff hunt involving the two teams here.

Two nights earlier the Sun at home had given a thorough beating to the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Lynx, the WNBA’s top team, spoiling former UConn star Maya Moore’s return as a rookie to the state she enjoyed enormous collegiate success as the nation’s top player.

New York barely survived here to beat the lowly Washington Mystics.

“But you know what happens many times in this league,” Tavares said. “The team that is the most desperate wins the game.”
And in all three games played on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards Thursday night Tavares was right on the mark, even if one of those the use of desperation is a stretch.

Connecticut, on the front end of a road back-to-back that concludes Friday night at the Atlanta Dream, had things well under control here through three quarters carrying a 15-point lead.

But New York, with more heroics from former Rutgers all-American Cappie Pondexter, chipped away and ultimately prevailed in overtime 84-81.

Pondexter, who finished with 27 points, scored the go-ahead basket with 24.3 seconds left in the extra period and her former Scarlet Knights teammate Essence Carson on the Liberty finished the night’s scoring with a pair of free throws at the finish.

Instead of sliding closer to the edge of out of the playoff mix, New York (15-11) moved a game closer in the East to the second-place Sun (16-9).

But the consequence of the loss for Connecticut became more of a missed opportunity then the Sun losing ground.
That’s because shortly thereafter on the West Coast in Los Angeles, the Sparks (10-14), eager to get into the playoff mix with time running out, took down the Eastern-leading Indiana Fever (18-8) in the Staples Center 75-70.

The Fever setback kept the Sun still 1.5 games behind Indiana, but New York in third moved to within three games of Indiana and 1.5 of Connecticut. The Liberty also, for the moment, moved two games ahead of fourth-place Atlanta (12-12) and 3.5 ahead of the fifth-place Chicago Sky (11-14) who were idle.

Los Angeles moved within 2.5 games of fourth place Seattle (13-12), the defending WNBA champion.

In the other Friday game, Minnesota (19-6), the Western leader, was anxious to shake off the loss to Connecticut, which the Lynx did rather well in the nation’s capitol with an 81-62 win over the hostess Washington Mystics (5-18), who are still 11.5 games behind Indiana and 6.5 games behind fourth place Atlanta in the East. The Dream are 1.5 games in front of fifth place Chicago, which is contending Atlanta for the fourth team on the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs.

Minnesota set a franchise record for wins in a season and, ironically, would land a playoff berth Saturday night for the first time since 2004 by beating Los Angeles in Minneapolis. The Lynx have already won the season series over the Sparks, 3-1, losing the season opener in Los Angeles.

Back here, the Liberty continued to be hurt by injuries and had to start former Rutgers All-American Essence Carson because of the bone bruise on a knee of former Stanford All-American Nicole Powell, who has been struggling with the injury.

“She told me before the game she couldn’t play,” New York coach John Whisenant said.
Carson, who had had two key blocks in the closing seconds of two previous home games, scored 19 points, while yet the third former Rutgers star on the Liberty Kia Vaughn came through in the clutch scoring 17 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

When someone approached Vaughn afterwards jokingly saying why didn’t you do this to them when you were Rutgers and they were UConn (each team has a sizeable contingent from the two Big East women’s powers), she responded “We won because we’re not Rutgers and they’re not UConn. We’re a different team and so are they.”

Former UConn star Tina Charles, the overall No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft by the Sun, had another monster game with 29 points and 14 rebounds. Charles’ former UConn teammate Renee Montgomery had 16 points and hit 4-of-11 3-point attempts, while ex-Huskies star Asjha Jones had 10 points and 11 rebounds. Former Tennessee standout Kara Lawson scored 10 points.

“I’m a lot happier now than I was at the end of the third quarter,” Wisenant said with a grin after notching his 100th WNBA win that included five seasons with the former Sacramento Monarchs. He’s the tenth coach in WNBA history to hit the century figure.

“You cannot catch up in one possession,” Whsienant said of instructions to his team when the Liberty had fallen 15 points back.

“And if we got impatient we would just get further behind. We have to rely on our defense to get stops and then continue to move on offense to get as good a shot as we could.”

Pondexter hit three baskets in the overtime and Vaughn scored on an offensive rebound while Connecticut missed a shot with 10.8 seconds that could have been the game winner at the finish in the extra period.

“What can you say about Cappie,” Whisenant said. “She’s one of the top 15 players of all time in the WNBA and in my view she’s an MVP candidate for this season and she plays up to that. She practices as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached and she’s right into the game and probably if I would get out of the huddle she would coach. We just had to ride on her shoulders.

“We didn’t have Nicole and we didn’t have (Quanitra) Hollingsworth and even though they don’t play her position, they affect our rotation and so we had to play Cappie. And she’s that kind of player. She’s just gear up and play.”
Pondexer admitted to having tired legs in the third period, where Liberty teams have weakened because of Whiseneant’s demanding White Line defense.

“I thought it was a great win for us. It showed you our competitiveness, just how bad we were willing to win. When you have that attitude, especially this late in the season when you’re tired, when you’re practicing, and you really don’t have a break, you know that’s pretty hard to do.”

The Liberty needed the win, headingWest for two tough games at Seattle Saturday night and at Phoenix against the Mercury on Tuesday night.

New York will finish with back-to-backs with Chicago, likewise with Minnesota, and then a home game with Indiana and a visit to Connecticut, against whom the Liberty now trail 2-1 in the season series.

Connecticut plays another desperate team in Atlanta, meeting the Dream twice – once Friday night on the road and at home Sunday.

Sun coach Mike Thibault talked about what went wrong after the big lead.

“We started walking the ball up,” he said. “We started over dribbling and we can’t play that way, not against that defense. We didn’t run it up like we did earlier and we played way too slow. For three quarters the game was at our pace and for the fourth quarter and overtime the game was at their pace.”

Lawson, who also broadcasts collegiate games on ESPN in the winter, talked about the fourth quarter and missing wide-open shots without regard to the Liberty defense.

“We still had the same shots we had in the first three quarters,” Lawson said. “I thought the big difference was just tempo – our defense in the fourth quarter wasn’t as effective as it was in the first three.

“So when a team is making shots you can’t run because you’re taking (the ball out of bounds). But when they’re missing like they were in the first three quarters, you’re able to run and get tempo so everything is freer,” Lawson explained.

“I thought, defensively, in the fourth quarter we gave up too many (offensive) boards and they scored. So now you’re kind of playing uphill on the offensive end. I think that’s why the game slowed down and part of that is us, too. We needed to make more of an effort to push it. And turnovers. Turnovers gave them an opportunity to get back at us.

“We had three open looks at the basket to win. At the end of the day we had three chances to win on the road. That happened in our last game on the road at Phoenix.

“Cappie made most of their shots down the stretch,” she said of Pondexter’s value. “We’ll try to get one back tomorrow, that’s the plan.”

Lynx Dominate Mystics

Washington had played nearly everyone close most with not much to show for the Mystics effort but at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night, home court meant little against a Minnesota team looking for redemption for the way it had played at Connecticut.

The win put the Lynx 4.5 games in front of idle Phoenix, 5.5 ahead of San Antonio, and six in front of Seattle among the teams holding playoff positions with Los Angeles looking to close the gap now that Candae Parker has returned from a knee injury suffered against New York on June 26th.

Seimone Augustus scored 18 points and Maya Moore scored 14 in the city she enjoyed road success with UConn against Georgetown in the Big East wars.

The Lynx equaled their season high shooting 57.1 percent from the field with Rebekkah Brunson, a former Georgetown star, adding 13 to the Lynx total.

“We really had a spirited practice (on Wednesday),” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said in the city where she was once an assistant coach at George Washington and played against the Colonials in the Atlantic 10 wars for La Salle University in Philadelphia. “It was the equivalent of a football team with a pads-on practice. We really challenged each other. … it really set the tone for who we were in the game.”

Moore echoed Reeve, adding, “We really played good defense, that was probably the most fun.”
Former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon had 15 points for Washington, while former Maryland star Marissa Coleman had 12 and her former Terrapins teammate Crystal Langhorne scored 11.

“We’ve been pretty close in every single game, but you have these days where nothing is really clicking,” Ajavon said of the Lynx attack. “Defense is always supposed to be there, but they were scoring at will.”

Washington stays home to host Chicago Saturday night.

Hoffman’s Revenge Propels Sparks

The focus may have been on Parker’s return to Los Angeles but former Southern Cal star Ebony Hoffman, whose minutes increased with Parker sidelined with the knee injury, but a dent in her former Indiana team scoring 21 points, while Parker had 18.

“I feel confident in my knee,” Parker said. “I don’t think I’m hesitant in doing anything or think twice about doing something I wouldn’t have done before.”

Indiana squandered a 12-point lead. Tamika Catchings and Erin Phillips each scored 16 points.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s great,” Hoffman said about beating her former team. “But it’s not my only motivation to have a great game against them. There was no love loss. Indy wanted me to play there. But it was a matter of me coming home to play in front of my family.”

A loss would have left Los Angeles 9.5 behind Minnesota but also 3.5 behind Seattle for the fourth playoff spot.

But as Connecticut’s Tavares alluded earlier, Desperate Rode Again.

-- Mel


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