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 17, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: UConn-Rutgers Intra-Alumni Wars Impact Playoff Races

(Guru's note: Material and quotes from beyond the NY-Wash game drawn on team and wire reports).

By Mel Greenberg

University of Connecticut and Rutgers women’s basketball alumni gatherings may be a time of solidarity involving past stars of two national collegiate powers out of the Big East Conference.

But on Tuesday night in the WNBA in three of five games alumni blood was not thick across the country as playoff races in both Eastern and Western Conferences continued in the stretch drive.

Two noted homecomings of separate variety also went up in smoke.

Here at the Prudential Center, which is serving as a temporary home for the New York Liberty through 2013 during renovations to Madison Square Garden, the venue was a perfect setting for the fourth-and-final game with the Washington Mystics considering the abundance of real and adopted Jersey girls on both squads.

Washington featured Crystal Langhorne, the former Maryland All-American out of Willingboro, N.J. to the south in suburban Philadelphia; Mount Holly’s DeMya Walker, who played at Virginia; and former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon, also the Liberian-born former high school star of Malcolm X Shabazz right here in Newark.

New York countered with a Rutgers alumni trio of All-Stars Cappie Pondexter out of Chicago and Essence Carson of nearby Paterson; and Kia Vaughn out of the Bronx across the Hudson.

And so it evolved in another close encounter as the previous three between the Liberty and Mystics that another Washington rally went for naught in the final minute.

Ajavon hit a 3-pointer with 25.4 seconds left that brought Washington back from a 16-point deficit that existed midway through the second quarter only to have Pondexter drive past her and score with 13.5 seconds for a 67-66 lead. Then Carson blocked another attempted trey from Ajavon with 7.8 seconds left, the second time in two straight home games that Carson blocked shots at the finish.

Nicole Powell and Plenette Pierson each hit one of two foul shots at closing time for the Liberty to make the final score New York 69, Washington 66.

Meanwhile, Maya Moore’s long-awaited single visit – unless both teams meet in the finals – back to the state of Connecticut where she had a sensational career at UConn and became the Minnesota Lynx’s overall No. 1 pick in the draft in April was overshadowed by ex-Huskies Tina Charles' performance.

The overall No. 1 pick of the Connecticut Sun in 2010, Charles, who graduated a year before Moore, had 16 points and 18 rebounds to Moore’s two points on 1-for-7 shooting in front of the first sellout crowd of the season at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Having been wiped out earlier in the summer on the Sun’s lone trip to Minneapolis, Coach Mike Thibault’s squad got even and exploded for a franchise record in regulation as part of their 108-79 victory against the Western leaders who also have the best record in the WNBA at 18-6.

A few hours later down in the Arizona desert in the Southwest, former UConn great Diana Taurasi stole a pass from Sue Bird, another UConn all-timer, and scored with 6.3 seconds left and the Phoenix Mercury ended a nine-game losing streak to the WNBA defending champion Seattle Storm, winning 81-79.

Ex-UConn star Swin Cash missed an eight-foot shoot for the Storm and Taurasi knocked the ball out of bounds as the Mercury (14-10) took sole possession of second place in the West four games behind Minnesota (18-6) and one ahead of the San Antonio Silver Stars (13-11), who fell short 65-63 to the Indiana Fever (18-7) at home in Texas.

Out in California, Candace Parker, the former Tennessee superstar, returned to action for the first time since suffering a knee injury here on June 26 in a game won by the Liberty.

But the defending Eastern playoff champion Atlanta Dream (12-12) spoiled the party, rallying for an 84-79 win at the Staples Center and a .500 record for the first time this season after starting off with a series of losses due to injuries.

Parker also got tossed by game officials with three-tenths seconds left for arguing a perceived non-call.

And so here is how things worked out in both conferences standings wise.

Indiana maintained it’s 1.5 lead over Connecticut in the East and 4 game lead over New York, which is third. The Fever are also 0.5 games behind Minnesota for best overall record, which could factor for home court advantage in the best-of-five finals if both teams reached the championship round.

The teams split their two games in the East-West crossover.

The second-place Sun stayed in pursuit of Indiana and held its 2.5 lead over New York and heads to the Liberty here Thursday night.

New York stayed 1.5 games in front of Atlanta and moved to a three-game lead over idle Chicago (11-14), which is 1.5 games behind the Dream for the fourth and final playoff spot.

Washington’s collection of excruciating losses in closing minutes continued as the Mystics (5-17) fell six games back of Atlanta with 12 remaining for the last playoff spot in the East.

Over in the West, Minnesota, which goes to Washington Thursday night, now holds only a four-game lead over Phoenix, which is one game ahead of San Antonio, which stayed 0.5 games ahead of fourth-place Seattle (13-12).

The Lynx did reduce the magic number three though two will do the trick to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 to three over Los Angeles, though the Sparks (9-14) remain alive themselves for the postseason trailing Seattle by three games.

Los Angeles, which hosts Indiana Thursday night and heads to Minnesota Saturday, remained three games behind Seattle for the last playoff spot.

Idle Tulsa (1-22) is 16.5 games out of first in the West and has already been eliminated from the postseason. The Shock next play Sunday hosting Los Angeles in hopes of not owning the single worst all-time losing streak in the WNBA at 18.

The Shock are currently tied with Atlanta, which lost its first 17 games in the franchise’s existence in 2008.

Here’s a closer look how things went in each of the five games.

Cappie To The Rescue

How New York got to its 69-66 victory here over Washingto, Cappie Pondexter heroics notwithstanding, was incidental.

As long as the Liberty (14-11) landed on the winner’s side of the score that was enough to keep pace with the frontrunning Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun and also stay ahead of Atlanta and Chicago.

“We won,” first-year coach-general manager John Whisenant said with a sigh of relief after New York grabbed another narrow win despite wasting a 16-point lead.

A loss would not have been totally fatal to New York but it certainly put Washington’s playoff hopes of life support just one season removed from a best-ever 22-victory effort, which was tied by the Liberty, but the Mystics got the tie-break and number one seed.

Pondexter, who had a game-high 26 points, had several highlight moments down the stretch, including one where with a blink of time left on the shot clock she connected from the corner for a 3-pointer and beat it for a 61-56 lead with 3:18 left in regulation.

Pierson was the only other Liberty scoring in double figures with 16 points, while Washington’s Langhorne scored 25 and Ajavon had 12.

Though it came down to the final minute, the loss for Washington was rooted in the first quarter when New York rolled to a 24-11 lead and on to a 16-point advantage in the next period.

The Liberty, who squandered a lead in Washington o Friday, tied the Mystics on the season-series 2-2 after playing three games against them of their last five.

“I wish I hand an explanation why we hit our lulls in scoring,” Whisenant said. “(Washington) came back and got it to three or four or five. I called timeout and screamed at our ladies – told them we weren’t working – they went back out there and got it up to nine or 10and then flattened again.”

But the bottom line was all that mattered for the immediate moment, though much danger still remains in the schedule ahead.

“We’re obviously not where we need to be,” Whisenant said. “I told the team there are only three more teams (Minnesota, Connecticut and Indiana) that have won more games then we have at 14.

“We’re not as good as we’d like to be. But we’re still right there. As long as we continue to play defense and improve on the rebounding we can stay in games and try to figure out how to score.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs and even that’s not assured. We have five tough road games and even our home games are against three of the teams that have better records than us so we don’t have anything easy in frnt of us.”

Asked if Pondexter’s winning play was a set strategy, he quickly responded, “Set to give it to Cappie. We talked about a couple of plays. But with the danger of turnovers and whatever, we just put Nicole (Powell) in the corner and Essence in the corner and Plenette to play with her and slip to the basket.

“Because they double (defend Pondexter) if they get close to her so we just told her to read it, if she could slip it to her, she would, if not, take it herself, if the wings drop in on her, kick it to a shooter and we’ll win it that way.

“She took it all the way. If you get your scorer to think about passing, she has to be aggressively offensive – I’m very hesitant to not let her do that but she is a very unselfish player and if I talk her too much about passing, she won’t shoot it and make it like she did.”
As for being defended by Ajavon, “I knew she was guarding me, but I knew I could take it and score,” Pondexter said.

Washington coach-general manager Trudi Lacey had to cope with another tough setback.

“We’ve been close a lot of times but inevitably our inexperience shows up,” Lacey said. “We had several possessions down the stretch that we didn’t execute and didn’t get a stop when we needed it at the end.

“But we didn’t come out in the beginning of the game ready to play – (New York) shot 70 percent in the quarter. You have to play a 40 minute game and it shouldn’t have come down to the end,” Lacey added.

“Every game this season has been close. I think our defense has improved. But the lack of playing together and inexperience continues to show up in games. So we just continue to learn and grow and improve. That is our objective,” Lacey said.

“Cappie is one of the best players in the world. She’s very tough to stop. She is their go-to and players make plays and that’s what she does for them.”

Newly acquired Kara Braxton, who came from Phoenix, saw more minutes because Quanitra Hollingsworth was out with an injury and is said to be day-to-day.

She talked about adjusting to Whisenant’s defensive schemes.

“I never ran anything like this,” Braxton said. “It’s not hard, it’s just some getting used to and some adjustments because I’ve never played in front of a post.

“It’s going to take some time but I’m getting used to it day by day. But I honestly say it’s different. It is different.”

The Sun Rises

Tradition was upheld in the state of Connecticut where the fan base gave a rousing welcome to one of their own in Maya Moore and one adopted pro in Lindsay Whalen who used to be their own and then sat back to be enthralled to see their own Connecticut Sun romp over Minnesota, making the Lynx suffer its worst loss of the season.

The Lynx, who visit Washington Thursday, have lost seven straight at Mohegan dating back to July 22, 2004 when Minnesota last won at the casino the same season they last made the playoffs.

Second-year pro Kelsey Griffin had a career-high 14 points, passing her previous high of 12, set ironically last month at Minnesota in a blowout loss to the Lynx.

Whalen had 16 of her 20 points in the second period for Minnesota, which also got 11 each from Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson.

Former UConn star Renee Montgomery, acquired a year ago with the overall Number One pick that landed Charles for Whalen, had 17 points and seven assists for the Sun, while Kara Lawson scored 16, making four-of-five treys, while ex-Huskies star Asjha Jones added 15 points to go with Charles’ monster game and Griffin’s career mark.

“It is a great confidence booster, without question,” Lawson said of beating the top team in the league at home where the Sun is 11-2 and 13-0 when leading at the half. “They have been the best team in the league all year long. It was a measuring stick game for us. Whenever you are playing the team with the best team in the league you want to see how you stack up against them.”

Moore was impressed by the defense on her.

“Connecticut played well, played with confidence,” she said. “They hit their shots and we didn’t get the job done on defense. We didn’t meet the challenge.”

Sun coach Mike Thibault sounded like UConn coach Geno Auriemma when everything comes together.

“I told our players after the game, I had nothing to complain about. It was a real short post game talk. That was terrific basketball for us, they way we played tonight,” Thibault said. “We were unselfish, moved the basketball and they just played. It was one of those games you hope to have when you have a crowd like this and it was fun to watch.

“With Minnesota coming in, all the hype was well deserved and our players wanted to make a statement tonight.”
Charles talked about playing against her former UConn teammate.

“It was definitely really important, but at the same time it shows a lot of respect to Maya,” Charles said. “She did a lot of great things at the University of Connecticut and the state of Connecticut. She made players like us, the ones that played with her at Connecticut – myself, Renee Montgomery, Kalana Greene, and others – she definitely made us better as players and it helped us become the players we are today.

“I had a different mindset going into the game. I had a more aggressive mindset for what I wanted to do in the game tonight. I had a different approach compared to how I played at Minnesota last month. I had that in the back of my mind and wanted to come out tonight and get off to a great start.”

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said, “I thought Connecticut played great. We played well at our place and we have the best overall record in the league and Connecticut was really hungry. They made shots, our defense was nowhere near as good as it has been and they played great.”

Reeve noted Moore’s situation in terms of the pressure of the homecoming.

“I bet every UConn player has a story about coming back here for the first time and how difficult it is. Maya is young and it happens. She is taking it really hard. She wants our team to be successful and I told her it was not just her. We had across the board some difficulty with people showing up tonight.

“At UConn, they were so dominant average winning by 25 points a game and this is a lot different. The league is so deep, and it’s a hard league and on any given night anybody can beat the other team. The road is tough and this is the first time all season that we were not in the game.”

Moore said of her struggle, “Tomorrow is another day and Thursday is another game, that is the thing about the pros. I’m not really used to it. It’s kind of better actually. You don’t have a week of practice.

“…You wish you could play forever as a Husky, but this is the next level,” Moore explained. “This is an even tougher level and I love the team I am on now.”

Lynx veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin talked about the Sun, she once played for, saying, “They played their best game and we didn’t show up. We are still upstairs at the Mohegan Sun Hotel, chilling I guess, because none of us showed up. ‘Coach’ made sure she told us.”

Phoenix Rebounds

The last game before Seattle, Phoenix squandered a lead and lost in overtime to Los Angeles, a setback that only time will tell if it caused long-range damage.

Then on Thursday the Mercury seemed still in doldrums trailing by 18 in the first half until Diana Taurasi led the comeback that snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Storm.

She finished with a game-high 24 points and it was her sixth straight game scoring 20 or more points. Taurasi is averaging 26.7 points against the three top defensive teams in the league.

Sue Bird scored 23 for the Storm, which has lost four of five games and continues to struggle without Lauren Jackson, the three-time MVP who has missed most of the season with a hip injury.

The Phoenix rally was the second largest to a comeback from a 19-point deficit on June 22, 1999.
In the gridlock wars of the West, Phoenix next hosts San Antonio Saturday night.

Dream Spoils Parker Return

Candace Parker had 15 points and 10 rebounds in her first game back since the knee injury in late June on a road stop against New York, but the performance was topped by Angel McCoughtry’s 23 that helped Atlanta get to .500 for the first time this year.

Erika de Souza added 18 points to the Atlanta total while DeLisha Milton-Jones had 19 for the Sparks and Natasha Lacy scored 11.

Parker was tossed with 0.03 left in the game for arguing a perceived non-call from officials in the final seconds when she thought she was fouled during a loose ball scramble.

She apologized later after gesturing to officials.

“I shouldn’t have acted like that,” Parker said. “I apologized to my team. I apologize to the fans.”
McCoughtry, the former Louisville star who followed Parker in 2009 as the overall No. 1 draft pick, said Parker shouldn’t have been ejected.

“It’s just a heat of the moment thing. Candace was fighting for her team. She has a right to fight for her team. She’s the leader. I don’t think she should have gotten kicked out.”

Indiana Still Rolling

The Fever kept their slim 1.5 lead in first over Connecticut in the East by winning at San Antonio as Tamika Catchings scored 26 points.

Los Angeles’ Candace Parker wasn’t the only person having a tough night with officials.
Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes was ejected with 4 minutes, 2 seconds left in the game after he was assessed his second technical foul.

San Antonio has been in a 2-6 slump after earlier getting off to a hot 5-1 run to start the season.

Danielle Robinson missed a shot with 3.9 seconds left that might have forced overtime for the Texans.

Scholanda Robinson finished with 10 points for the Silver Stars, as did Danielle Robinson and Jia Perkins.
Indiana’s Katie Douglas didn’t score all night but defensed Becky Hammon.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well, no one did,” Hammon said. “It was a rough, rough night from the floor.”

Fever coach Lin Dunn credited Douglas for holding Hammon’s stat line to 1-for-8 and six points.

“When you look at the stat line, you say `Katie didn’t score,’” Dunn observed. “But look at Becky’s stat line. That’s thanks to Douglas.”

- Mel


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