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.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guru's WNBA Playoff Report: Atlanta's De Souza Departs; Lynx Look To More History

(Guru’s note: The Guru has two items over at Full Court Press – fullcourt.com – the MVP feature mentioned previously and an advance focusing on just the east, some of which will be also stated below – Mel)

By Mel Greenberg

Adversity has struck the Atlanta Dream again as they head into Sunday’s home game at their Philips Arena trying to avoid being ousted 2-0 by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA’s best-of-three Eastern Conference finals.

In the West, the Minnesota Lynx is attempting to finish writing another page to their illustrious franchise-making history book of this season while their opponent the Phoenix Mercury will be hosting them back home in Arizona seeking to bounce back from an opening game rout for the second series in a row.

Short of winning the title, the Dream were the feel-good story of last season – their third since joining the WNBA in 2008 – as they opened the Eastern Conference playoffs semifinals and finals as a four-seed on the road and produced a pair of 2-0 sweeps over the Washington Mystics (remember them?) and New York Liberty to advance to the finals against the Seattle Storm.

Though Brian Agler’s group had one of the most dominate runs in WNBA history with a 28-6 record and a complete 7-0 sweep through the playoffs, Atlanta was competitive in all three losses producing the narrowest differential in combined scores in the history of the playoffs.

A season later, misery has hung around the Dream ever since June, though they were able to shake off a slew of injuries and other disruptions to eventually recover from a 3-9 start to make a 17-5 run to a third seed and return to the playoffs.

Twice in the semifinals, Atlanta used fourth-quarter rallies to wipe out the Connecticut Sun 2-0 and advance to the finals against the Indiana Fever, a team they managed to go 4-0 against during the regular season.

But the Dream ran into some surprises in Thursday night’s opener in Game 1 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis – primarily from veteran Tangela Smith, a former Iowa star signed by the Fever as a free agent following a stint with Phoenix. She scored 25 points; including making 5-of-7 three-pointers in gaining an 82-74 victory to put Atlanta’s back’s to the wall to try to stave off a quick elimination.

On Saturday that task got a little more difficult when Atlanta announced that center Erika De Souza had vamoosed, per agreement, to the Brazilian National Team from her native country to play in this week’s FIBA Americas Championship For Women tournament in Columbia, which just got under way and will continue through Saturday, Oct. 1.

The event, which involves qualifying for next summer’s Olympics in London, England, is a single-elimination affair and Atlanta said De Souza would be back whenever Brazil had finished its participation.

While that could be as early as the day after tomorrow, that might not be time enough for Atlanta if the Dream are given their walking papers Sunday afternoon by the Fever, who are hungry to take their second shot in three seasons in trying to win an elusive WNBA title.

Indiana veteran All-Star Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee All-American, has already negated the other elusive item in her career when she picked up her first MVP award Thursday from a nationwide media panel of 40 sportswriters and sportscasters who cover the league.

This is the second time this season Atlanta has been made short-handed by one of the Dream’s foreign players participating in Olympic qualifying events.

In late June and early July forward Sancho Lyttle, who recently signed a multi-year contract extension with Atlanta for undisclosed terms, missed six games initially to go home to Spain to compete with the national team for an Olympic spot.

Then she missed six more upon her return because of back problems. At the time, Atlanta, whose leader Angel McCoughtry was struggling with a knee injury suffered in training camp, was struggling with that 3-9 start and drifting more toward the discussion about lottery picks in the draft then toward the playoffs.

But then things began to click and Atlanta went on a 17-5 run to finish with the third seed just ahead of New York.

De Souza, a 6-5 center, had eight points and 13 rebounds in the opener and as a starter in 32 of 34 games for the Dream this season provides the most experience in the post.

After former Iowa star Tangela Smith went on a spree for Indiana with 25 points, including making 5-of-7 three-pointers, Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors will need to use a committee of younger players in the post to replace De Souza in former Duke star Alison Bales, former Oklahoma star Courtney Paris and former TCU star Sandora Irvin to help contain Smith, Catchings, Douglas and former Rutgers center Tammy Sutton-Brown.

Atlanta certainly can’t afford to have McCoughtry shut down to the 11 points she scored in Thursday’s opener when she suffered with foul trouble and only seeing 17 minutes of playing time.

In the conference semifinal series with the Connecticut Sun, the second seed behind Indiana’s top seed – the two had identical 21-13 records – Atlanta twice rallied in the fourth quarter.

But late will not be early enough on Sunday. Down 2-1 Atlanta needs to take control from the outset to force a Game 3 Tuesday night back in Indianapolis at the site of April’s NCAA Women’s Final Four.

That will be challenging enough, especially losing De Souza who started 32 of 34 games. On one hand Atlanta looks to diversified scoring in the Dream’s recent run.

However, one of the Fever’s forte all season was getting help from the bench, especially after losing starting point guard Briann January for the rest of the season in late June with a knee injury.

Jessica Davenport in the post made major career strides in scoring off the bench to help the Fever win close games. And however Atlanta went 4-0 against the Fever during the season the 0-1 performance right now is what matters most.

Lynx Lottery Wins Begin To Ripen

Meanwhile, earlier this season New York first-year coach John Whisenant was asked to evaluate Minnesota’s work considering he was a league veteran off the longtime he spent in a similar coach-general manager role with the former Sacramento Monarchs and one which produced a WNBA title in 2005.

“Well, they got lottery picks,” Whisenant smiled.

Indeed, most of the Lynx’s woeful history that only saw two playoff eliminations in conference semifinals in 2003 and 2004 accentuated with injuries and many narrow losses put Minnesota in position to get good opportunities to collect some of the best talent out of the draft.

Former LSU star Seimone Augustus was a No. 1 overall pick as was former UConn great Maya Moore, the rookie of the year
selected in April.

The Lynx had the rights to the top pick in 2010 but they dealt the selection rights to the Connecticut Sun, who took MVP runnerup Tina Charles out of UConn. However, Minnesota got hometown girl Lindsay Whalen,a perennial All-Star who has had her best season, in return from the Sun.

Former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson was a second overall pick a year ago off the dispersal of Sacramento roster when the team disbanded and she has become a rebounding machine for the Lynx.

Former Virginia star Monica Wright was a top four pick as was former Stanford star Candice Wiggins and this past April former Xavier star Amber Harris. Veteran but ageless post player Taj McWilliams-Franklin signed as a free agent. Former George Washington star Jessica Adair has also made contributions off the bench.

The job of putting this all together went to Cheryl Reeve, a former star at La Salle in Philadelphia in the late 1980s near her home in South Jersey who has served as an assistant to Northwestern’s Joe McKeown at George Washington and as an aide to Bill Laimbeer when the forlorn Tulsa Shock were the magnificent Detroit Shock winning three WNBA titles.

That made her coach of the year in her second season with the Lynx after guiding Minnesota to a league-best 27-7 record, an improvement of 14 games topped only by the worst-to-first turnaround of Detroit which won its first title in 2003.

Following the regular season success, Minnesota narrowly escaped to win Game 1 of the conference semifinals at home against San Antonio, lost to the Silver Stars in Game 2 in Texas, and then came home to put everything together for a first-ever series win.

Next up were the Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of the West finals Thursday in Minneapolis. During the season, the two teams offered offensive fun-to-watch scoring fireworks in their five-game series won 3-2 by Minnesota, which won most every series and settled for 1-1 cross-conference splits with Connecticut, Indiana, and New York.

The Mercury, meanwhile, got routed in Game of its conference semifinal in Seattle by the defending champion Storm but rallied with a home win in Phoenix to take that series.

Then in the decisive Game 3 after trailing by 18 points in Seattle, the Mercury surged and won before time expired to stun the Storm as former Temple star Candice Dupree scored on a putback.

That set up Thursday when Minnesota continued to thrive with Augustus, Moore, and, off the bench, Wiggins. Surprisingly, though, Phoenix was shut down, even causing Reeve to marvel over the way her team “made it look easy.”

But considering that former UConn great Diana Taurasi and Australian star Penny Taylor, and Dupree, despite Thursday’s performance, are always a threat and WNBA three-time sixth-player winner DeWanna Bonner is coming off the bench and that Mercury are at home Sunday trying to get things all tied up again, who knows for sure what lies ahead.

By Sunday night, though, it will either be a first-ever trip to the finals for Minnesota or back to Minneapolis Tuesday night for more fireworks at the Target Center.

So until the two results are in, the Guru will be back here and at Full Court with separate coverage before the next sunrise.

-- Mel

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