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 04, 2011

Guru's WNBA Playoff Hunt: Temple's Dupree and UConn Grads Impact Qualifiers

(Guru's Note: Material for post drawn from team and wire service reports)

By Mel Greenberg

On an almost completed weekend in which former UConn greats were involved with their WNBA teams’ pursuit of the postseason picture, a former Temple star helped the Phoenix Mercury punch their return ticket to the playoffs while delivering a severe blow to the hopes of the Los Angeles Sparks.

Candice Dupree, one of the all-time players for Temple and the Philadelphia Big 5 women’s teams, had 22 points and a franchise-record 19 rebounds as the Phoenix Mercury beat the visiting Sparks 93-77 in one of two WNBA games played on Saturday night.

"She was a beast," Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said of Dupree, who came from Chicago last season in a three-team deal that sent former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter from the Mercury to the New York Liberty. "She was going after every rebound. She missed a couple that were just out of her reach. She had some tip-ins and was grabbing with authority both with two hands and one hand."

Former UConn all-everything Diana Taurasi scored 24 to lead the Mercury offensive attack as Phoenix (18-13) stayed in third place a game behind the WNBA defending champion Seattle Storm (19-12), which won the other game, beating the San Antonio Silver Stars on the road 76-60.

Australian Penny Taylor, who missed the two previous games with back spasms, scored 14 points for the Mercury before sitting for most of the second half.

Taurasi praised Dupree’s effort.

"She controlled the game today on both ends which is hard to do sometimes being a post player," Taurasi said. "She's just unbelievable. Every game she plays she plays pretty well. I'm sure its fun for the fans to watch. It was fun for us to watch. That was probably one of the best games of the year for her."

The Storm, holding second, is 5.5 games behind the idle Minnesota Lynx (24-7), which has won everything there is to win in the regular season and will be in tune-up mode the rest of the way as they take their first-ever No. 1 seed into the playoffs.

The San Antonio (15-16) loss could have been more trouble for the Silver Stars’ playoff hopes but, again, as the coach Dan Hughes’ squad has suffered setbacks, Los Angeles (13-18) has failed to make inroads, losing Saturday night to Phoenix to stay two games behind the fourth-place Texans for the fourth and final playoff spot with three games remaining on each team’s schedule.

Though former Tennessee sensation Candace Parker recently returned to the Sparks from a knee injury suffered in late June her outstanding performances have gone to waste such as the season-high 32 points against Phoenix she put on the scoreboard while Los Angeles was on the way to the Sparks’ third loss in their last four games.

Former Maryland star Kristi Toliver had 23 points for Los Angeles, while DeLisha Milton-Jones contributed 13 points and eight rebounds for Los Angeles.

"No telling what is going to happen," Los Angeles interim coach Joe Bryant, on his second tour of duty running the Sparks, said after Saturday night’s loss. "We have to play it out. That's what I told the women. Make sure to keep our heads up high. It's not over until it's over."

That could happen Tuesday night when San Antonio visits Los Angeles. A Silver Stars win would send the Sparks back to the draft lottery where several seasons ago in 2008 they were able to pick Parker as the overall No. 1 when she chose not complete another year of eligibility with the then two-time NCAA champion Lady Vols.

Parker was allowed to forego her senior season on the court because she red-shirted her freshman season with an injury.

Even if Los Angeles wins Tuesday’s game, the task will still be daunting to leap over the Silver Stars.
San Antonio’s last two games after the visit to the Sparks are against the two worst teams in the WNBA, record wise.

The Silver Stars, who would have to win both if they lose at Los Angeles, host the Eastern cellar-dwelling Washington Mystics (6-25) on Saturday night and then travel to Western basement resident Tulsa Shock (3-27) on Sunday.

Los Angeles, after Tuesday, hosts Tulsa on Friday night and the Chicago Sky (14-16) on Saturday night at the Staples Center.

Obviously a three-game win streak for Los Angeles and a likewise plunge for San Antonio would put the Sparks in the playoffs.

If they tie for fourth, season series would be negated because they would be 2-2 against each other.

If they both beat Tulsa but then if the tie comes about because San Antonio would lose to Washington and Los Angeles beats Chicago, then Los Angeles would go to the playoffs because the Sparks’ conference record would be 12-10 while San Antonio would be 11-11.

If after Tuesday, if Los Angeles was the winner over San Antonio, but then they both lose to Tulsa, and then they split the results with the two Eastern teams with Los Angeles winning and Chicago losing to get the tie, L.A. would have a conference record of 10-12 and San Antonio would be 9-13 so the Sparks still win the tiebreaker.

Meanwhile, in the Seattle win Saturday at San Antonio, former UConn all-American Sue Bird, another of the school’s all-timers, and her ex-Huskies dazzling teammate Swin Cash were the big stars on offense with Bird scoring 15 points, while Cash had 14 points and 12 rebounds.

"We're in a situation where there are a couple of games left, we're trying to get second place and we can really control our own destiny by getting wins," Bird said. "So we just wanted to do whatever we had to do to get a win, and everybody did that tonight. It felt really, really good."

Lauren Jackson, the three-time league MVP from Australia had 13 points.

Jackson, a former No. 1 overall pick out of Australia, had been sidelined nearly as long as Los Angeles’ Parker, but with a hip injury. However, the Storm are 6-1 since Jackson’s return to action in Seattle, which dominated the WNBA a year ago going 28-6 in the regular season and then blitzed through the playoffs, win-wise with a seven-game streak, ousting Los Angeles, Phoenix, and then Atlanta in the finals

Sophia Young, the former Baylor all-American who led the Bears to the 2005 NCAA title, had 22 points in Saturday’s loss and veteran All-Star Becky Hammon had 14 for San Antonio.

"I thought (Sue) Bird and (Lauren) Jackson were Bird and Jackson," Silver Stars coach Hughes said. "They have a very formidable team. They're back in a rhythm that reminded me of what I saw of them last year."

Seattle has beaten San Antonio, 10-of-11 games, the only loss occurring when Jackson was sidelined for the Storm.
On Friday night Bird scored 21 in a 78-72 win at Tulsa to keep the pressure on Phoenix in the 2-3 race for home-court advantage in the first round.

Jackson had 20 points for Seattle and Cash scored 12.

Seattle coach Brian Agler keeps referring to Bird as the best point guard in the world.

In the win at Tulsa, instead of firing a missile at the buzzer as she has done many times in her career, Bird wrapped up things earlier, hitting a 3-pointer with 37.4 seconds left in the game.

"It's in my contract, he has to say that," Bird joked in Tulsa of Agler’s on-going compliment. "Seriously, it was a very scrappy game. We had the lead and Tulsa made a run to cut it to four points. It was a pressure situation.

"I came off a pick-and-roll, got a good look and shot the ball. I knew once it went in, it was probably going to seal the game. Tulsa was relentless and that shot was the dagger. Tulsa has improved a ton."

"That's Sue Bird," Agler said. "I've seen her do this so much, but still I'm amazed at how clutch she is. She's done this multiple times. She took the game over when she had to and that's the difference in her."

San Antonio fell three games behind Phoenix in a long shot chance at a fight for third.

If the Silver Stars won their final three games and Phoenix lost theirs to create a tie for third, San Antonio would move up having won the season series 3-2 over the Mercury in their five games played.

In the battle for second and home court advantage in the opening best-of-three conference semifinals, Phoenix finishes out hosting Tulsa Thursday night, visiting Seattle Friday and then hosting Minnesota Sunday.

The Storm host Phoenix Friday and then host Chicago next Sunday.

If Phoenix beats Tulsa, then Seattle beat Phoenix, but they end up tied, in that scenario Seattle would have the season-series over Phoenix, 3-1.

If Phoenix beats Tulsa, then beats Seattle to take a lead but then they were tied, series record would be negated at 2-2 but Seattle has already clinched a better conference record. The Storm are at 14-7 while Phoenix, at 10-9 cannot catch Seattle so the Storm own that tiebreaker.

Also, in the West in terms of the UConn identity, Friday night in a crossover game the New York Liberty (18-13) earned a return playoff trip upsetting the Minnesota Lynx (24-7) on the road 78-62 before the two will meet against Sunday afternoon in Newark, N.J., in a return game at the Prudential Center.

Despite the loss, the Connecticut Sun 83-55 romp over the Indiana Fever (19-11) that moved the Sun (19-12) within a half-game of first, also knocked the Fever from being able to challenge Minnesota for best overall record if both teams got to the best-of-five finals.

So it’s Minnesota’s to have if the Lynx advance all the way through. The team’s landmark season has been highlighted with the addition of rookie and former UConn superstar Maya Moore, the overall No. 1 pick in last April’s draft.

Leilani Mitchell scored 24 points, hitting six 3-pointers, for the Liberty in their playoff berth-clinching win over Minnesota, while former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter had 13 points and seven assists. Plenette Pierson had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Seimone Augustus, a former LSU star who was an overall No. 1 pick of the Lynx several years ago, had 17 points for Minnesota and Moore scored 16 points as the Lynx parted from a six-game win streak.

"We've been fighting for a playoff spot since the season started," Pierson said. "For us, this is just another game. We just need to go out and play our game and not worry about the race."

Minnesota knew long before the game with New York ended that the Lynx had clinched the best record.

"It's a dejected locker room," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "Kind of weird. You know, you clinch the best overall record and get No. 1, and I've got towels over heads and we're dejected. That's a great sign because they want to win every game they play. They've got a great deal of pride. It was hard to tell them the game didn't matter because it mattered a lot to them."

In the Connecticut win, Friday, second-year pro Tina Charles, yet another former Huskies great who was rookie of the year in 2010 besides the Sun making her the overall No. 1 pick in the draft, earned the first franchise triple double and only the fifth in WNBA history.

Charles, a center, had 10 points, 10 assists, and 16 rebounds.

Rookie Danielle McCray, a former Kansas star, scored 14 points for Connecticut, while Kara Lawson added 12 and Asjha Jones, yet another former UConn star who signed a contract extension earlier in the day, had 10 points.

Indiana’s Katie Douglas scored 12 points and Tamika Catchings scored 11 for the fever.

"I give Connecticut a lot of credit," Fever coach Lin Dunn said. "They played with an enormous amount of urgency. It looked like they were fighting for first place."

While Connecticut was doing that, the Atlanta Dream (17-14), fighting with the Chicago Sky (14-16) for the last playoff spot in the East, avenged Thursday night’s loss to the Washington Mystics on Friday by returning home and beating Washington 95-73 in the Philips Arena.

The Dream, whose magic number for a playoff berth is one, announced on Saturday that Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler, who still must be approved by the league as majority owners n Atlanta, are taking over ownership from Kathy Betty.

She has been the managing partner since adding Brock and Loeffler to the all-female ownership team in January. Betty bought the team from Ron Terwilliger in 2009.

The Dream can clinch an Eastern Conference playoff spot with a win over Tulsa on Sunday.

In their win over Washington, the Dream got 19 points from Armintie Price while Angel McCoughtry scored 16, and reserve center Alison Bales, a former Duke star, scored 15 points for a career-high.

Jasmine Thomas made it two former Duke stars on the night with career highs in the WNBA as the Mystics rookie scored 19 points. Former Maryland stars Crystal Langhorne got 15 points for the Mystics and Marissa Coleman scored 12.

Atlanta, which hosts Tulsa, Sunday, should be able to find a win somewhere this week, though Chicago is likely to help the Dream’s playoff cause with a loss as early as Sunday night when the Sky host Indiana. Then Chicago finishes out the season later in the week at Minnesota, at Los Angeles and at Seattle.

The Dream, who are only a game behind New York, with three left to play, including Sunday’s game, finish out hosting Connecticut Tuesday and visiting Indiana next Sunday in games that could impact seed positions.

Atlanta cannot get a third seed in a tie with New York because the Liberty won the season series 3-2. Besides hosting Minnesota, Sunday, the Liberty will host Indiana Friday night and visit Connecticut Sunday.

The Sun, which lost the season series to Indiana, finishing out visiting Washington Sunday, visiting Atlanta Tuesday and hosting New York next Sunday.

If the Sun win against the Mystics and the Liberty lose to the Lynx, Connecticut will clinch the No. 2 seed with a shot at No. 1. If Connecticut would lose the next two and the Liberty win for a tie for second, the Sun would have an edge because although they would be 2-2 in the New York series, they would have conference advantage at minimally 13-7 with two left while the Liberty are at 10-10 with two conference game left.

Indiana visits Chicago Sunday as the Sky hang on to their last hope. The Fever then host Washington Wednesday, visit New York Friday, and host Atlanta next Sunday.

The Guru will be back after covering the Liberty-Minnesota game to lead the next roundup.

Congrats

To Jayda Evans, our WNBA beat writer colleague at the Seattle Times, who is jumping ship for a while to get married, she claims.
To Frank Della Femina, the former WNBA.com operative caught in the recent NBA layoffs move, who has gained employment with the MLS New York Red Bulls

To Virginia Commonwealth coach Beth Cunningham, on her recent family expansion via he birth of her first child.

-- Mel




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