Guru's WNBA Report: MVP Catchings No Longer The WNBA's Susan Lucci
By Mel Greenberg
It was UConn night in the opener of the Western Conference playoffs in Minneapolis where the Minnesota Lynx are shedding their long reputation as playoff wannabes, this time at the expense of the Phoenix Mercury.
Meanwhile, over in the East the Indiana Fever’s veteran All-Star Tamika Catchings is no longer the Susan Lucci of the WNBA’s MVP award while moving one step closer to returning to the league championship series for the second time in two seasons.
Lucci, who has played Erica Kane in the long-running ABC daytime soap opera All My Children, struck out 18 straight times as an also-ran in the Emmy Awards competition, television’s version of the Oscars, before the drought ended in 1999.
Likewise in nine previous seasons as an active member of the Fever, Catchings was a nominee finalist eight times for the MVP award without earning a trip to the podium to be handed the league’s top individual honor.
That drought finally ended Thursday when an hour or so before the opening tip of the best-of-three Eastern finals against the third-seeded Atlanta Deam in the Fever’s Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The daughter of former NBA 76ers player Harvey Catchings, she was named the overwhelming winner in what was considered a crowded competitive field of candidates.
Catchings, the former Tennessee All-American, received 21 first-place votes from a 40-member media panel of sportswriters and broadcasters to gain 292 points.
Though some distance away in second place, the Connecticut Sun’s Tina Charles, the 2010 rookie of the year out of UConn, gained the most support among the also-rans with 209 points.
The Chicago Sky’s Sylvia Fowles was third with 148 points, followed by the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird, another former UConn star, with 106 points, and then Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen with 104 points.
“When you cheer tonight, don’t just cheer for the MVP, cheer for (her teammates), too, because I wouldn’t be here without them,” Catchings noted to Fever fans attending the press conference in the arena where the NCAA Women’s Final Four was held in April.
Now that she has become an MVP, the only thing missing from Catchings’ illustrious resume is a WNBA championship and the Fever took a big step toward clearing that up with an 82-74 victory in Game 1 of the conference final after the two teams were tied at 57-57 through three quarters.
Catchings had 12 points and 13 rebounds and a key steal and score off Dream All-Star Angel McCoughtry late in the game to help seal the victory.
“That was an MVP performance,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said afterwards of Catchings.
It was also one overshadowed a bit by Tangela Smith, who had a personal playoff career high of 25 points and connected on 5-of-7 three-point attempts, which is an Indiana record in the playoffs.
The Fever also were 23-for-27 on foul shooting attempts while the Dream connected with only 9of-17 free throw attempts. Smith, who played at Iowa in the late 1990s, signed prior to the season as a free agent after being a member of the Phoenix Mercury’s 2007 and 2009 championships.
The latter came at the expense of the Fever, who had taken a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series before the Mercury rallied to beat Indiana on the road and then edged the Fever in the final game in Phoenix.
“That’s why we brought Tan here,” Dunn said of Smith’s work from the perimeter. “She can spread the floor and knock down threes, and she did exactly what we expected her to do. She has the green light. If she’s open, we want her to shoot.”
Atlanta had beaten Indiana in all four regular-season meetings, though the outcomes were close, before losing an opening playoff series game for the first time since 2009, the Dream’s second season, when the former Detroit Shock, now relocated in Tulsa, eliminated them.
“We’ve had our backs to the wall many, many times this season,” Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said of her team that struggled with injuries to a 3-9 start before surging to finish with the third seed in the East. “We’ve faced adversity many times, and we’ve managed to jump over the hurdles, and this is one in front of us. We will come back strong on Sunday afternoon.”
The series moves to Philips Arena where Atlanta will be looking for McCoughtry to bounce back from a tough night in which she eventually fouled out, was held to 11 points, and only played 17 minutes.
If she wanted company in misery, she might try former Temple star Candice Dupree, an All-Star for the Mercury who had hit the winning shot before time expired Monday night in Seattle to end the Storm’s one-year rule as WNBA champions.
Dupree had two points and two rebounds as Minnesota, the No. 1 seed, turned the second half into a 95-67 rout in the Target Center.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma was in the arena to do color commentary during the ESPN2 broadcast and got to work with one of his former players and watch other ex-Huskies on both sides.
Rebecca Lobo, a regular on ESPN women’s broadcasts, sat alongside her former coach in the building in which the Huskies won their first of seven NCAA titles in 1995, rallying to beat Tennessee.
Maya Moore, the WNBA rookie of the year, had 13 of her 15 points in the first quarter. All-Star Lindsay Whalen was in foul trouble but former Stanford All-American Candice Wiggins came off the bench to score 14 points as a backup.
Seimone Augustus, a previous No. 1 pick in 2006, scored 21 points for the Lynx and dealt seven assists.
Diana Taurasi, another one of Auriemma’s all-time UConn greats, had 22 for Phoenix, whose explosive offense was shut down by Minnesota.
“Phoenix is a very difficult team to guard,” said Lynx second-year coach Cheryl Reeve, the former La Salle star in Philadelphia who was named coach of the year for guiding the Lynx to an overall WNBA-best 27-7 record. “And we made it look pretty easy.”
Before this season the Lynx had been to the playoffs just twice, losing opening series in 2003 and 2004. But after a narrow win in Game one of the conference semifinals over the San Antonio Silver Stars followed by a loss to the opposition in Game 2 in Texas, Minnesota has now put together two strong back-to-back games.
The series moves to Phoenix Sunday for Game 2.
“It probably looked easy but it wasn’t,” Augustus said. “We know when we go to Phoenix, Arizona, it’s going to be a different story.”
The city’s other pro teams such as baseball’s Twins, football’s Vikings, and hockey’s Wild have been donating seats to the Lynx games playoff games.
Of the four finalists in the playoffs, Phoenix is the only one to win WNBA titles, while Indiana lost the series to the Mercury in 2009 as mentioned and last year Atlanta suffered three narrow loses to Seattle, which had dominated the season with a 28-6 run.
Auriemma showed he has a future in television sports broadcasts whenever he gets tired of coaching, though if UConn moves from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference the switch could provide new motivation to do well.
He will also guide the Olympic team next summer in the London Games.
At one point during the Thursday broadcast he offered a bit of trivia about Lynx rebounding machine Rebekkah Brunson, the former Georgetown star who Auriemma coached against in the Big East battles.
He pointed out that in 2001 the conference rookie of the year was Brunson over some kid on UConn from California named Taurasi.
Until the next sunrise, the Guru will be back.