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.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Guru's WNBA Report: Liberty Upsets Fever While Storm Clinch West's Second Seed

(Guru note: Material and quotes from elsewhere beyond game site coverage drawn on team and wire service reports.)

By Mel Greenberg

The WNBA East has become the anything-can-happen conference, which gives New York coach John Whisenant some cause for optimism after his Liberty beat the regular season champion Indiana Fever 83-75 Friday night at the Prudential Center.

“That was a good win,” he said as the Liberty (19-14) wrapped up the first of three summers in their temporary home across the Hudson River while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations in Manhattan.

“We got a little careless in the second half, we threw away some points we weren’t happy about, but overall we beat the team that has the best record in the East and now go into the playoffs knowing that if we play properly we can win. It’s all up to us to put together 40 minutes of good defense that leads to good offense.”

What is still unknown is how the four playoff teams in the East will pair up in the semifinals and that won’t be decided until Sunday’s regular season set of WNBA games conclude.

Indiana clinched the No. 1 conference seed on Wednesday but the Fever (21-12) may have to be called a co-champion if they lose at home to defending Eastern playoff champion Atlanta Dream (19-14), a team they are 0-3 against this season, and the Connecticut Sun (20-13) beats New York at home in the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Indiana clinched home-court advantage for both the best-of-three conference semifinals and finals over Connecticut because of the Fever’s 3-2 record in the season series.

But other than Indiana, the deck can shuffle in any of several different scenarios for the 2-3-4 pecking order in the East including one in which if New York beats Connecticut and Indiana beats Atlanta, there’s a three-way tie for second and the Liberty rise to the second seed on records among the three against each other.

The win Friday night moved New York into a tie for third with Atlanta, and the Liberty in that setting gets the third seed on their 3-2 record against the Dream.

A year ago, New York and the Washington Mystics tied for the regular season East title with franchise-best 22 wins for each team and Washington getting the No. 1.

But Atlanta, in its third season in franchise history, as a No. 4 seed upset the Mystics in the East semis while New York ended Indiana’s one-year reign over the East. The Dream then beat the Liberty in the final and went down three straight in narrow loses to the Seattle Storm, which had the best overall record and one of the best in WNBA history.

Seattle (20-13), which went a large portion of the summer without three-time MVP Lauren Jackson, who had a hip injury in late June putting her out of action until late August, settled all the West issues Friday night beating the Phoenix Mercury 85-70 at home to break a deadlock with Phoenix (19-14) and clinch the second seed.

The two will meet in one of the semifinals and the seeds are set on Seattle’s winning the season series 3-1 against the Mercury to take second, though an unlikely Storm loss at home Sunday to the Chicago Sky (14-18) and a Phoenix win at home over the Minnesota Lynx (26-7) would have the Storm and Mercury land in a second-place tie on overall record.

San Antonio (16-16) clinched the fourth playoff spot on Tuesday ousting the Los Angeles Sparks (14-19) in a head-to-head game at the Sparks’ Staples Center. The Silver Stars will meet the Lynx, against whom they were swept 4-0, though Minnesota won the first two meetings with winning scores just before time expired in each game.

In Seattle’s win Tuesday night golden oldie Katie Smith, acquired in a three-way trade involving Washington and Indiana as the season got under way, played like a young energetic rookie, scoring a season-high 26 points.

“That was Katie of old right there,” said Phoenix star Diana Taurasi, who had a season-high 36 points. “She could probably do that more often, but she’s willing to divert the last couple of years because she’s been on some talented teams. Katie could probably do that every night.”

Former Penn State star Tanisha Wright had 18 points for Seattle, while Sue Bird, a former UConn teammate of Taurasi, had 15 points.

Smith, who as a freshman led Ohio State to the 1993 NCAA title game against the Sheryl Swoops-led Texas Tech squad, returned Tasurasi’s compliment.

“Yeah, I let her know, come on now you’re the baby in all of this,” Smith said of the 2004 UConn grad, who has gone on to be one of the world’s top women’s hoops stars. “She’s younger, but she’s one of my favorite players to play against and play with on Olympic teams. I have much respect for her and I know she does, too. We have a lot of fun competing against each other and it’s been a friendly rivalry for a couple of years.”

Penny Taylor missed her fourth game in recent weeks for Phoenix because of back spasms.

Back here the Rutgers alumni trio of Cappie Pondexter, Kia Vaughn, and Essence Carson combined for 45 points, more than half of New York’s total.

New York had been off since Sunday when the Liberty were routed by Minnesota, seeking revenge for one of the few Lynx home losses that New York dealt a week ago Friday in Minneapolis.

“You definitely want to go into the playoffs with a good head of steam, some good momentum,” Carson said. “Our last game definitely wasn’t our best so we want to forget about that and continue to move forward and now we just have to worry about Connecticut.”

Carson, off the bench had 18 points, while Vaughn had 15 points and nine rebounds, and Pondexter scored 12. Additionally, Plenette Pierson scored 12 points, and former Stanford star Nicole Powell scored 13.

“Essence has been our spark a lot of games this year and she was again,” Whisenant said. “She’s a great athlete, comes in and scores, and defends whoever I tell her to defend and she does a great job of that.”

Whisenant has always had an affinity for Rutgers players dating to the time as coach of the Sacramento Monarchs he drafted current Scarlet Knights assistant Chelsea Newton and she helped land the 2005 WNBA title.

If New York beats Connecticut Sunday, within the East the Liberty will have split with the Sun 2-2, Fever 2-2 and Washington 2-2, topped Atlanta 3-2 and likewise won over Chicago 3-2.

Former Tennessee star Shannon Bobbitt, who grew up in the nearby Bronx, N.Y., across the Hudson River, made her first pro start since 2009 and had a career high 16 points behind Katie Douglas’ team-high 17 points for Indiana, whose Tamika Catchings was held to nine points.

Erin Phillips did not play because of an ankle sprain but is expected back for the playoffs.

New York crushed Indiana on the boards with a 30-19 rebounding advantage and that domination had Fever coach Lin Dunn upset.

“At the end of the day when you get beat that bad on the boards, you’re going to lose the game,” Dunn said.
She also rejected any idea the Fever had mentally taken the night off having gained most of what is necessary for playoff boosts.

“They better not let up,” Dunn said. “We’re still playing for (won-loss) records because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“Just because Minnesota has the first (overall) seed doesn’t mean they are going to win out in the West. What happens if they get upset,” she continued.

“Then, who has the next seed? We are playing to win; we’re not resting people. We’re not coasting. We’re playing to win and we did not play with the effort and intensity in the paint that we needed to and I am disappointed that we didn’t come in here and win this game. I’m not happy.”

Before the game, a brief ceremony was held to note the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers with several Liberty players offering recollections in a video on the giant jumbotron screen in the Prudential Center.

Both teams lined up and an honor guard came out to surround a giant American flag carried onto the court while former Liberty great Kym Hampton sang the national anthem.

WNBA first-year president Laurel Richie attended the game, as did vice president Renee Brown.

Former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, a Hall of Famer, was at the Seattle game.

One other game on the WNBA Friday card had Los Angeles at home winning an 84-73 outcome against the Tulsa Shock (3-30), which is about to finish with the worst record in the 15-year history of the WNBA.

The Washington Mystic once went through a season winning only three games but the schedule was a bit shorter.

That mediocrity helped gain the overall No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft and Washington picked former Tennessee sensational Chamique Holdsclaw, though she never fully delivered on expectations and she went on to play for several other teams.

In Friday’s game, Sparks rookie Jantel Lavender out of Ohio State had 19 points and a season-high 12 rebounds as Los Angeles won all but one game in the series with the Shock.

That setback at the finish in the loss contributed to the Sparks not making the playoffs.

Candace Parker, who missed 15 games with a knee injury, sat out because the knee had flared up again.

Saturday’s night prospects for her return in the season finale at home against Chicago will not be known until game time.

“We’re not in the playoffs, so it’s really more about caring for the player,” interim coach Joe Jellybean Bryant, the father of Kobe Bryant, said. “It’s important for her to get a fully recovery.”

Andrea Riley and Liz Cambage each scored 18 points for Tulsa, which was also without former North Carolina star Ivory
Latta, who was recently sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Tulsa coach Teresa Edwards was promoted from assistant to head coach after Nolan Richardson resigned while Bryant was promoted from an aide to his second stint guiding the Sparks after Jennifer Gillom was fired the same weekend in early July.

Edwards, Bryant or management of either team’s plans to retain either coach is not known.

On Saturday night, Chicago visits Los Angeles, which is the season finale at home for the Sparks; and Washington will be at San Antonio as the Mystics and Los Angeles end their seasons.

On Sunday, besides the two East showdowns to set up the conference seeds and playoff schedules Minnesota, seeking to have a winning record against every West team, visits Phoenix. San Antonio will make its final playoff tuneup by visiting Tulsa and Seattle, seeking second place outright by record, will host Chicago. The visiting Sky will finish their sixth season in franchise history without reaching the playoffs.

-- Mel


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